Spontaneous Human Combustion, What You Are Burning To Know
It sounds like science fiction or a story for the tabloids: spontaneous human combustion attributed to a three-month-old child named Rahul. The child’s mother, Rajeswari Karnan of Nedimoliyur, India, says he has experienced this phenomenon four times during his short lifetime. In addition to worrying about the welfare of this child, many people are asking questions about spontaneous human combustion, so here’s what researchers have found thus far.
What is spontaneous human combustion?
Can human beings spontaneously burst into flames for no apparent reason? It sounds like a good way to off someone in a murder mystery story (and Charles Dickens actually used this ploy to eliminate a character in his story Bleak House), but according to some sources, it could be a real phenomenon, although not well understood.
According to experts involved in Rahul’s case, there have been about 200 cases of spontaneous human combustion over the past three centuries. Two explanations for going up in flames for no apparent reason reportedly may be associated with how air is released from the body or with heavy consumption of alcohol, which may cause the body to emit alcohol-related substances that could cause the body to ignite.
In the case of Rahul, experts have not uncovered any medical evidence to support claims of spontaneous human combustion. That leaves the possibility that the child is the victim of abuse or accidental fires, although no conclusions have been reached thus far.
Other cases of spontaneous human combustion
In a recent article published in the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, the investigative team reported on spontaneous human combustion. They noted that combustion typically occurs after a person has died and a source of heat is identified near the body.
Another common factor is the presence of high concentrations of alcohol in the body. However, that is unlikely the case with baby Rahul.
A recent report in the Journal of Burn Care and Research presents some basic and interesting information on spontaneous human combustion. A total of 12 cases of spontaneous human combustion were evaluated.
The authors noted that the term refers to an event when the middle portion of the human body is burned to ashes while much less damage occurs to the head and extremities and there is minimal to no damage to the area around the body. Other factors typical of spontaneous human combustion are no identifiable source of the flames and the presence of a foul smelling oily substance.
The researchers explained the probable sequence of events: the victim must die before the body fat begins to melt, a break in the skin allows the melted fat to reach the clothing, and this initiates localized heat for a prolonged time. They also pointed out there are numerous variations to this general explanation and so every case is different.
Intentional burning of the human body occurs during cremation, and people also turn to ash when they are victims of a fire. Those events, however, involve fire outside of the body acting on the body, while spontaneous human combustion suggests the ignition may come from within.
Yet the human body is composed mainly of water, while the flammable parts are mostly fat and methane gas. Since some victims are found near a fire source (although others reportedly are not), many scientists say there’s no such thing as spontaneous human combustion and that individuals somehow set themselves on fire.
However, there’s a problem: the furniture and other surrounding features of people reported to be victims of spontaneous human combustion often are not burned. How is this possible? This feature, as well as the observation that while the middle part of the body is destroyed, outlying portions are not, adds to the mystery.
One researcher who is trying to solve the mystery is British biologist Brian J. Ford, who hypothesized that the accumulation of acetone, a substance that can build up in people who have diabetes, alcoholism, or who follow a specific type of diet) may result in spontaneous combustion.
For now, spontaneous human combustion remains a mystery. Some say the answer lies in the paranormal while others insist there’s a logical scientific explanation for why a few people continue to go up in flames for no apparent reason--they just don't know what it is.
Gromb S et al. Spontaneous human combustion: a sometimes incomprehensible phenomenon. Journal of Clinical Forensic Medicine 2000 Mar; 7(1): 29-31
Kolionen V, Kluger N. Spontaneous human combustion in the light of the 21st century. Journal of Burn Care & Research 2012 May-Jun; 33(3): e101-7
Quatrehomme G et al. Isolated body combustion: new French cases, old worldwide issues. American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology 2013 Jun; 34(2): 90-94