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Spontaneous human combustion – one more thing to worry about

15 September 2012

Warning (I seem to have a lot of warnings on my posts of late, don’t I? This warning is one you might want to adhere to, though. No, seriously.): The following post contains stories and imagery that some readers might find upsetting and/or nightmare-inducing. Read on or not as you see fit.

You’re sitting in your favourite chair late one night, feeling somewhat heavy and dull. An annoying headache is throbbing away behind your eyes and you decide to try to sleep it off. You rise from the chair to go to bed, but immediately find yourself engulfed in blue flames! You open your mouth to scream out in pain and horror only to see your own breath catch fire as well. As you feel your lungs burning you start to suffocate and finally – mercifully - lose consciousness. Within 40 minutes your body has been turned to a pile of smoldering ashes, only leaving your legs intact.

It’s a horrific scenario and it feels like it’s come straight out of some horror movie, but spontaneous human combustion is actually a rather well documented – if exceedingly rare – phenomenon.

Documented cases through history

The first known case happened in 1470, when the Italian Polonus Vorstius caught fire after having enjoyed some wine. In more modern times, a few rather sensational cases have been recorded and thoroughly studied:

The typically gruesome remains – notice how the legs have been left untouched by the fire.

1st July 1951, Florida. The mailman, delivering a telegram to Mary Reeser, found the doorknob to the apartment hot to the touch and notified the emergency services. On entering the apartment, they found Mary Reeser’s charred spine with her liver hanging off it in a pile of ashes. Her legs had been left unscathed.

5th December 1966, Pennsylvania. A meter reader who had let himself into the house found the charred remains of John Irving Bentley’s leg in a pile of bones and ashes.

15th September 1982, London. Jeannie Saffin rose from her chair and was instantly engulfed in blue flames. Her family watched helplessly on as she roared while her synthetic cardigan melted onto her body.

22nd December 2010, West Galway. Michael Faherty, a 76-year-old diabetic was found burned beyond recognition in his home. The coroner recorded the death as spontaneous human combustion.

In total, some 120 cases have been documented throughout history.

A plausible cause?

So what could be the cause of these gruesome events? A common factor seem to have been that many of the victims had been heavy drinkers, something that have triggered theories of the victims’ bodies had been soaked in alcohol and therefore inflammable.

Most of the items next to the victim have been left undamaged due to the short duration of the combustion.

However, experiments have failed to reproduce the recorded results, with combustion taking as long as 12-24 hours. Also, getting animal tissue containing high amounts of alcohol to ignite has proved to be difficult.

But there’s another factor to take into consideration: many of the victims were obese and could therefore have been suffering from type-2 diabetes. In fact, Michael Faherty was diagnosed as a diabetic by the coroner. Diabetes can cause ketoacidosis, where body fat is converted into ketone bodies and acetone among other things. And as it happens, severe cases of alcoholism can also cause ketoacidosis.

But so what? What about if both diabetics and alcoholics might suffer from ketoacidosis? What’s that got to do with spontaneous human combustion? Well, in extreme cases, acetone can dissolve into a person’s body fat, making it extremely flammable. And acetone vapours will be emitted from the skin, concentrating in pockets under the person’s clothes. As acetone will readily ignite by tiny sparks (like static sparks from wearing synthetic fibres, or airborne sparks from open fires), it’s possible for people to spontaneously burst into flames – blue flames, since acetone burns with a bright blue light.

Michael Faherty, 2010. The first death officially recorded as being caused by spontaneous human combustion.

Dieters beware?

There is another group of people who can also suffer from ketoacidosis: dieters. When starving your body, and your inbuilt store of blood sugar is consumed (usually within 24 hours), fatty acids will be used to produce ketone bodies and acetone – a metabolic procedure known as ketosis. Whilst only rarely leading to full-blown ketoacidosis, where the concentration of keto acids reaches life threatening levels, it’s still a plausible risk. In fact, there might be cause to warn people on harsh diets from wearing synthetic fibres on dry days (or even brushing their hair) to avoid sparks from being generated. Just in case.

But perhaps we shouldn’t worry too much? Spontaneous human combustion is incredibly rare. With just 120 odd cases recorded, you’re several 100 times more likely to be hit and killed by lightning. Still.. I can’t hurt being cautious, and if you smell acetone on your breath (or someone else’s breath for that matter) stay away from open flames and have some fruit to restore your blood sugar. After all, no diet is worth bursting into flames like some demonic vampire for.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. 15 September 2012 22:46

    I hung my head in shame the day I heard about that coroner’s finding.

    Your idea is the best I’ve heard, so far, but does the math add up? Wouldn’t the amounts of acetone be small? I don’t know, I definitely don’t want to go by fire anyway, that much I know.

    Like

    • 15 September 2012 23:01

      I’m no Believer by any stretch, but this theory does make the phenomenon plausible. I can’t take the credit for it though; it’s down to the (slightly odd) British biology professor Brian J Ford.

      Like

  2. Sonami permalink
    15 September 2012 23:24

    Well, in a thermodynamics class, we would make a nice graph showing that the potential energy of [human+oxygen] is higher than that of [pile of ash/carbon dioxide+slightly less oxygen]. So, eventually, all humans should combust (spontaneously or otherwise). It’s just a matter of time :)

    Like

  3. 16 September 2012 01:57

    YAY FOR SPONTANEOUS HUMAN COMBUSTION!

    Um. That came out wrong. And kind of gruesome. To start again:

    …yay for spontaneous human combustion…

    I’m kind of obsessed with this. You know. I even wrote a poem about it in my book. One of my favorite poems I’ve ever written, actually. I love that one. I’m fascinated by this. I’m a little freaked out now that I know there’s a diabetes connection (DAMN YOU MY CRAPPY GENETICS!) but I still find it fascinating.

    I find random odd things poetic. Someone just spur-of-the-moment going up in flames? Poetic. Sure, terrible. But there’s always something poetic about fire to me. Equal parts terrifying and poetic, I guess.

    Like

    • 16 September 2012 07:20

      Yes, I do remember that poem. ‘Fever’ it was called, I think? It kind of upset me.

      I’ve not really been all that fascinated by spontaneous human combustion myself, but rather vaguely curious, as in ‘how can such a thing even be possible?’. You know, scientifically. And nothing’s really made any sense until I heard about this theory by Brian J Ford. I haven’t linked to his website because it’s a bit crap (and by crap I mean it looks like the website of a crack-pot/conspiracy theorist/UFO hunter or something – which I’m sure is most unfair, but the design speaks for itself), and his other theories don’t exactly add to his credibility, but I still find this ketoacidosis theory for spontaneous human combustion to be both probable and fascinating. Especially with the connection to harsh dieting.

      Like

  4. 16 September 2012 16:02

    This post was especially timely for me as I just watched an episode of Fringe that featured spontaneous human combustion. Well, mixed in with Firestarter-style pyrokinesis.

    Anyways, thanks for the informative post! I’ve always been fascinated by this phenomenon and wondered if there was any science explaining it.

    Like

    • 16 September 2012 16:12

      Thanks, glad you liked the post!

      Yes, in my opinion there wasn’t much of a scientific backing for this phenomenon until Brian J Ford put forward this theory. Ketoacidosis seems much more likely than alcohol soaked tissues or the wick effect.

      Like

  5. 16 September 2012 20:45

    Wow… I had forgotten this was a thing. Also, I had no idea people just left their legs laying around after.

    Like

  6. 19 September 2012 01:24

    There must be a fart joke in here somewhere…..

    Like

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