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Short shelf life

The hob is crowded. A pan has been shoved to one side, leaving its handle over the gas. I grab it, drop it, say a rude word, then repeat the word several times. But Janet knows a better cure. ‘Hold your finger under the cold tap and keep it there,’ she commands.

Janet has firm views on minor burns, and will not be argued with. As I understand it, the water must be icy and the affected part must remain in the freezing stream until the oceans run dry.

Later, when dinner is done and my finger is nicely numb, I creep into my office and check Janet’s remedy against current orthodoxy. She is half right. Warmer water is recommended because icy water shuts down the blood supply. But the experts agree with Janet that the treatment should continue for at least 20 minutes.

So is this the last word on the matter, or will the rules keep changing? Will tepid water soon follow the yellow ointment of my childhood into the landfill of history?

Reaching for my grandmother’s 1938 Home Medical Guide, I learn that on the eve of war, burns and scalds were treated with Carron oil, or better still, picric acid lotion. Carron oil, a mixture of linseed oil and limewater, was named after a Scottish town where it was used to treat local steelworkers. Today it is smeared on horses’ coats to make them shiny.

But picric acid is in another league – it is chemically related to TNT but more powerful and less stable. The first world war was fought with picric acid, and anyone finding the stuffin an old first aid kit must alert the bomb squad. In 1937, it was used to treat victims of the Hindenburg airship disaster, but anyone so much as touching the stuff these days should seek medical help.

What next for minor burns? I nominate golden syrup. As sugar falls out of favour as a foodstuff, might it be allowed its 15 years in the medicine cabinet?

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