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‘A frying pan killed my parrot’

I tried not to laugh. Her pampered bird hadn’t been bludgeoned to death with a wok and it hadn’t even been flash fried; apparently it had died much more insidiously than that. She went on to tell me that Polly had spent her little feathery life in the kitchen and had probably met an early demise because she’d been exposed to toxic fluorocarbon particles emitted by her Teflon frying pan.

It sounds crazy, but aerosolised Teflon is well known, at least amongst pigeon-fanciers, to be toxic to birds and there is controversial evidence that it’s carcinogenic in mammals too. ‘Will I now die of cancer?’ was her predicable non sequitur.

Nearly every week, a new cancer threat is unleashed onto an unsuspecting public and is partnered by 24 hours of relentless media coverage. Colourful examples abound and include fizzy drinks and stomach cancer, mobile phones and brain cancer, coffee and kidney cancer, deodorants and breast cancer and my own personal favourite burnt sausages and bowel cancer. So if you’re on holiday and make a call in the sunshine while drinking a latte at a barbecue, you’re a goner. In fact, cancer stories probably cause cancer too.

The corollary is that we positively dine on these toxins and every day we indulge in a heady carcinogenic brew of benzenes and dixoins, the pernicious polymers of our consume-and-throw-away society. A quick glance, though, shows that not all of us are dropping dead with tumours.  

But when it comes to our own lives and our own health, shivering as we do in the deep hollows of ignorance, we’re not very good at putting risk into context. Whatever can harm us, even if there is a vanishingly small chance of it ever doing so, assumes such great importance that it can even prompt a trip to the doctor. We’re a risk-averse – some might even say cowardly – species, and it seems scientists have developed a symbiosis with fear. The public and the profession are only too willing to listen to them intone like Moses from Mount Sinai: ‘Thou shalt not drink fizzy pop and thou shalt not use Teflon.’  

The consultation was far from non-stick and she refused to budge out of her chair until she’d told me everything she knew. Initially I thought it was a load of old cock, but a cursory Google search confirmed a lot of it. To my shame, the first thing I did when I got home was to throw away my frying pan.

Dr Kevin Hinkley is a GP in Aberdeen, Scotland