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Britain On The Couch: Why mobiles could be the Rolls Royce of disease

If microwaving can bake raw potatoes, what would you expect it to do to the neurones in your skull?
HAVING RARE access to a first-class seat on a train the other day, I was unable to get a moment's peace from the incessant mobile phone chatter. "Okay, so you tell Jan to tell Terry that the meeting's on Friday ... sorry, on Friday ... no, tell Jan and Terry it's on Friday ... hello? hello?" Tring, tring. "No, I was saying you should ring Jan ... and so on, ad nauseam.

Until recently the strategy that a good friend of mine used to deal with this irritant was simply to ask the source to move, in a firm and direct manner. But very soon he will implement a new approach. Each morning he rushes to see if the postman has brought his new toy, a mobile phone zapper which causes a high-pitched squeal in the ear when pointed at a phone user.

My main worry about mobile phones, however, is not noise. It is that they may damage the brain, perhaps promoting brain cancer. As with all these health scares, in retrospect it seems common sense. If you deregulate without much forethought and with scientific research priorities driven by profit, you should expect trouble.

It was, for example, easy for the tobacco industry to get away with deliberately raising nicotine levels in their products knowing that they will cause addiction and cancer. And was it altogether surprising that, after endlessly recycling sheep's brains containing scrapie, BSE broke out in cows? Or, after pouring organophosphates into the soil, that most of the population seems permanently under the weather, with weakened immune systems?

So you should not be surprised if microwaving the brain with a mobile turns out to be not a good idea. If microwaving can bake raw potatoes, what would you expect it to do to the neurones in your skull?

A recent Scandinavian study provides the strongest evidence so far. Mobile users are more prone to memory loss and headaches, and it may not be long before further research proves more malign outcomes, more than 10 years too late.

I have a mobile and it is extremely helpful to me during the periods when I am making TV programmes, living a peripatetic life. I remember when they first came into mass circulation, in the late 1980s, and I was sent off to do a psychological interview with a man who had already made his first million out of the product.

He was a troubled, somewhat lonely person who may have been drawn to this particular field by a strong desire to be able to be in touch at any moment. Certainly, he was not in touch with his own feelings. Nor did he seem to have many (or any) intimate relationships. His desire to be able to call and be called at any time, anywhere, reminded me of an insecure toddler who fears separation from its parents.

But whatever his deeper motives, there is no doubt he was on to a good thing. Even without the huge practical advantages the mobile phone can bring, the increasing insularity of our lives, as more of us live alone, separated from spouses, children and intimates, means that more and more of us feel desperately lonely and want to be in contact.

Whilst some people only use the phones to achieve practical ends, many others use them to feel connected emotionally. As work increasingly replaces authentic intimacy, endless chatter on the phone, ostensibly about important work-related matters, is often used to bolster self-esteem and fill an inner emptiness. An unnecessary call to a colleague can make you feel powerful, popular, even loved. The fact that it may also be giving you brain cancer is something you would rather not think about, and the manufacturers are not about to encourage that thought.

When I first heard of this danger a couple of years ago, I rushed down to my local shop only to be told that there was nothing in it. But when I returned a month ago, they had changed the pitch. Advanced capitalism has an amazing capacity to make money every which way, so now the line was that I needed a new phone (pounds 299.99) which would send the microwaves away from my head. Luckily I had already researched the solution: a pounds 39.99 earplug with microphone which enables you to speak and listen without having the phone next to your ear.

This saga reminds me of the reaction I first had to Aids when I heard about it in 1986: how viciously unfair that its method of transmission should particularly put at risk already marginalised groups like gays. Of course, many people at the time argued that this was common sense. If you use parts of the body for purposes that the Good Lord did not intend them, what can you expect?

But what I felt was that it was deeply unfair that the virus had not been transmitted by the leather on Rolls Royce seats or by champagne corks. It was pretty random that it happened to be the way it was.

The mobile phone may turn out to be that champagne cork/Rolls Royce leather disease and, ironically, if it does provoke an epidemic of brain cancer, the most at-risk groups will be the insecure and wealthy people who first latched on to them to keep loneliness and insignificance at bay.

Usually, the people to suffer the worst consequences of advanced capitalism's exploitation of our instincts (eg to eat, to have sex) and our weaknesses, are the poorest and most vulnerable. Could the mobile phone be the first exception to that rule?

If it is, my good friend - soon to wreak havoc with his zapper - will rejoice at the thought of train journeys and restaurants made more peaceable by the absence of the showy, insecure types most likely to die.

Oliver James's book `Britain on The Couch - Why We're Unhappier Compared With 1950 Despite Being Richer' is published by Century.