Thursday, 14 March 2013

Spontaneous Human Combustion

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Spontaneous human combustion (SHC) describes reported cases of the burning of a living (or very recently deceased) human body without an apparent external source of ignition. There have been about 200 cited cases[1] worldwide over a period of around 300 years.
There are many hypotheses that attempt to explain human spontaneous combustion:
  • Natural explanations based on unknown or otherwise unobserved phenomena (e.g. that the production of abnormally concentrated gas or raised levels of blood alcohol might cause spontaneous ignition)
  • Natural explanations relating to health and lifestyle factors (e.g. smoking, not consuming adequate levels of water etc.)
  • Natural explanations that involve an external source of ignition (e.g. the victim was drunk and dropped a cigarette)
Objections to natural explanations typically refer to the degree of burning of the body with respect to its surroundings. Indeed, one of the common markers of a case of SHC is that the body – or part of it – suffered an extraordinarily large degree of burning while the surroundings or the lower limbs remained comparatively undamaged.[1] Supernatural explanations of spontaneous human combustion remain popular.


[edit] Characteristics

The spontaneous combustion of people (i.e. death from a fire originating within the victim’s body without a direct external cause) is a theoretical explanation for a number of unexplained cases, some of which are well-documented but many of which are not. The more intriguing cases share the following characteristics:
  • The body is completely or almost completely incinerated, while nearby furniture exposed to high temperatures remains intact. Damage is limited to the victim’s body and clothing, to the area of the floor or furniture on which he or she died and to the ceiling above the corpse.
  • The torso is the focus of the fire and if remains are found these are of the extremities, such as the feet.
  • There are no traces of fire accelerant and the fire does not have an evident external cause.
  • Often the combustion seems to happen simultaneously at many parts of the body, usually without any obvious points of origin.
  • The victim is typically alone at the time of death and is thought to have been alive when the fire started, despite showing little sign of having struggled.[2]

[edit] Forensic investigation

An extensive two-year research project—involving thirty historical cases of alleged SHC—was conducted in 1984 by science investigator Joe Nickell and forensic analyst John F. Fischer. Their lengthy, two-part report was published in the journal of the International Association of Arson Investigators,[3][4] as well as part of a book.[5] Nickell has written frequently on the subject,[3][4][5] appeared on television documentaries, conducted additional research, and lectured at the New York State Academy of Fire Science at Montour Falls, NY, as a guest instructor.
Nickell and Fischer’s investigation—which looked at cases in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries—showed that, again and again, the burned bodies were near plausible sources for the ignition: candles, lamps, fireplaces, and so on. Sometimes these sources were left out of popular accounts of the alleged phenomenon while they were hyped as mysterious. The investigations also found that there was a correlation between alleged SHC deaths and victims’ drunkenness or other incapacitation that could have caused them to be careless with fire and less able to respond properly to an accident. Where the destruction of the body was not extensive, the significant fuel source was the victim’s clothing.
However, where the destruction was extensive, additional fuel sources were involved, such as chair stuffing, floor coverings, the flooring itself, and the like. The investigators described how such materials helped retain melted fat to burn and destroy more of the body, yielding still more liquified fat, in a cyclic process known as the “wick effect” (or “candle effect”).
That nearby objects often went undamaged was not a scientific mystery but a matter of physics. Fire tends to burn upward, and it burns laterally with some difficulty. The fires in question are relatively small, achieving considerable destruction by the wick effect, and relatively nearby objects may not be close enough to catch fire themselves (much as one can get rather close to a modest campfire without burning). As with other mysteries, Nickell and Fischer cautioned against a one-explanation-fits-all approach but rather urged investigating on a case-by-case basis.[citation needed]

[edit] Suggested explanations

Many hypotheses attempt to explain how SHC might occur but according to those that rely on scientific understanding, incidents that might appear as spontaneous combustion actually had an external source of ignition – and the likelihood of true spontaneous human combustion is quite low.[6] Benjamin Radford, science writer and deputy editor of the science magazine Skeptical Inquirer, casts doubt on the plausibility of spontaneous human combustion, “If SHC is a real phenomenon (and not the result of an elderly or infirm person being too close to a flame source), why doesn’t it happen more often? There are 6 billion people in the world, and yet we don’t see reports of people bursting into flame while walking down the street, attending football games, or sipping a coffee at a local Starbucks.”[7] Paranormal researcher Brian Dunning states that SHC stories “are simply the rare cases where a natural death in isolation has been followed by a slow combustion from some nearby source of ignition.” Other stories of people suddenly aflame should be called “Unsolved deaths by fire”; just because the cause was not discovered does not mean SHC occurs.[8]

[edit] Natural explanations

  • Almost all cases of SHC involve persons with low mobility, due to advanced age or obesity, along with poor health.[9] Victims show a high likelihood of having died in their sleep, or of being unable to move once they had caught fire.
  • Cigarettes are often seen as the source of fire, as dropped cigarettes are the leading cause of house fires in the USA.[10] Natural causes such as heart attacks may lead to the victim dying, subsequently dropping the cigarette, which after a period of smouldering can ignite the victim’s clothes.[11]
  • The “wick effect” hypothesis suggests that a small external flame source, such as a burning cigarette, chars the clothing of the victim at a location, splitting the skin and releasing subcutaneous fat, which is in turn absorbed into the burned clothing, acting as a wick. This combustion can continue for as long as the fuel is available. This hypothesis has been successfully tested with animal tissue (pig) and is consistent with evidence recovered from cases of human combustion.[12][13] The human body typically has enough stored energy in fat and other chemical stores to fully combust the body; even lean people have several pounds of fat in their tissues. This fat, once heated by the burning clothing, wicks into the clothing much as candle wax (which typically was originally made of animal fat) wicks into a lit candle wick to provide the fuel needed to keep the wick burning.[14]
  • Scalding can cause burn-like injuries, including death, without setting fire to clothing. Although not applicable in cases where the body is charred and burnt, this has been suggested as a cause in at least one claimed SHC-like event.[15]
  • Brian J. Ford has convincingly shown that ketosis, possibly caused by alcoholism or low-carb dieting, produces acetone, which is highly flammable and could therefore lead to apparently spontaneous combustion.[16][17]

[edit] Unverified natural phenomena

  • Another hypothesis suggests high-energy particles or gamma rays[1] coupled with susceptibilities in the potential victim (e.g., increased alcohol in the blood) trigger the initial reaction. This process may use no external oxygen to spread throughout the body, since it may not be an “oxidation-reduction” reaction. However, no reaction mechanism has been proposed, nor has a source for the high-energy particles.

[edit] In fiction

Examples of spontaneous human combustion are somewhat common in fictional works from the 19th century onwards. It is used both as a central plot device and as an incidental occurrence. The second and third chapters of Charles Brockden Brown’s 1798 novel Wieland focus on the emigration of Wieland, a German, to colonial America. As part of his religious practices, he spends solitary hours in a temple constructed on his property. One night his family hears “a loud report, like the explosion of a mine.” Rushing to the temple, they find Wieland lying with his clothing burned off and delirious. He dies soon after. While the term “spontaneous human combustion” was not yet created, Brown includes a footnote at the end of chapter 2 that suggests the phenomenon and its existence in 18th century medical studies. The footnote reads:
“A case, in its symptoms exactly parallel to this, is published in one of the Journals of Florence. See, likewise, similar cases reported by Messrs. Merille and Muraire, in the Journal de Medicine, for February and May, 1783. The researches of Maffei and Fontana have thrown light upon this subject.”
Russian and Ukrainian author Nikolai Gogol includes SHC in three works, including his novel Dead Souls.[18] Charles Dickens provides a very graphic depiction of the death of the shopkeeper Mr. Krook by spontaneous combustion in his novel Bleak House (1852). At the time, many readers considered spontaneous combustion highly dubious if not impossible, but Dickens nonetheless staunchly defended the plausibility of his account. Considering his prominence, Dickens’ portrayal likely renewed public interest and belief in the phenomenon.[19]
Jules Verne describes in his novel Dick Sand, A Captain at Fifteen (1878) that when a fictional African “King of Kazounde” tasted a punch set aflame, “An act of spontaneous combustion had just taken place. The king had taken fire like a petroleum bonbon. This fire developed little heat, but it devoured nonetheless.” Verne had no doubt about SHC being the result of alcoholism: “In bodies so thoroughly alcoholized, combustion only produces a light and bluish flame, that water cannot extinguish. Even stifled outside, it would still continue to burn inwardly. When liquor has penetrated all the tissues, there exists no means of arresting the combustion.”[20]
In the 1984 mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, Spontaneous Human Combustion is included as the cause of death of one of the band’s numerous former drummers, leaving only “a little green globule on his drum seat”. The band’s current drummer later dies in the same way, in an on-stage explosion that leaves no remains. By way of explanation, lead singer David St. Hubbins claims that “dozens of people spontaneously combust each year, it’s just not really widely reported.”
The science fiction writer Bob Shaw’s 1984 novel Fire Pattern deals with spontaneous human combustion.
In Michael Scott’s novels, The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, spontaneous human combustion is described as being caused by one using up all of one’s aura (magical energy).
In the CSI episode “Face Lift”, a pig carcass is wrapped in cloth and a lit cigarette is placed on the cloth to test the wick effect.[21]
In the Dead Like Me episode "Defying Death", Daisy reaps the soul of a man who dies of this phenomenon after over exerting himself in an arm wrestling competition.
In the Greek 2005 novel Mother Ash writer Alexis Stamatis, makes spontaneous human combustion the central element of the plot, when a middle-aged woman and mother of the protagonist suddenly bursts into flames.
In the television series Fringe, episode “Brave New World (Part 1)”, spontaneous human combustion was caused by nanites.
In the Playstation video game Parasite Eve, the NPCs experience spontaneous combustion through a reaction from the primary characters affecting the mitochondria of the NPCs.

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ a b c “Ablaze!: The Mysterious Fires of Spontaneous Human Combustion” Arnold, Larry E. 1995 ISBN 0-87131-789-3
  2. ^ "‘First Irish case’ of death by spontaneous combustion". BBC News. 23 September 2011.
  3. ^ a b Nickell, Joe; Fischer, John F. (March 1984). "Spontaneous Human Combustion". The Fire and Arson Investigator 34 (3): 4–11.
  4. ^ a b Nickell, Joe; Fischer, John F. (June 1984). "Spontaneous Human Combustion". The Fire and Arson Investigator 34 (4): 3–8.
  5. ^ a b Nickell, Joe (1991). Secrets of The Supernatural. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. pp. 149–157, 161–171.
  6. ^ "Skeptic’s Dictionary on spontaneous human combustion, Retrieved Oct 20, 2007 "The physical possibilities of spontaneous human combustion are remote."". 24 September 2011. Retrieved 24 May 2012.
  7. ^ "Irishman died of spontaneous human combustion, coroner claims". MSNBC. 26 September 2011. Retrieved 8 October 2011.
  8. ^ Brian Dunning (17 May 2011). "Spontaneous Human Combustion: People can catch on fire... but can it really happen when there is no external source of ignition?". Skeptoid: Critical Analysis of Pop Phenomena. Retrieved 7 November 2011.
  9. ^ "Spontaneous Human Combustion". Retrieved 24 May 2012.
  10. ^ "Cigarettes’ Role in Fires Growing". Retrieved 24 May 2012.
  11. ^ Joe Nickell (March–April 1998). "Fiery tales that spontaneously destruct – reports on spontaneous human combustion – includes an investigative chronology based on a published photograph". Skeptical Inquirer 22.2.
  12. ^ Palmiere C, Staub C, La Harpe R, Mangin P (2009). "Ignition of a human body by a modest external source: a case report". Forensic Sci Int 188 (1–3): e17–9. doi:10.1016/j.forsciint.2009.03.027. PMID 19410396.
  13. ^ Campbell, S. J.; S. Nurbakhsh (1999). "Combustion of animal fat and its implications for the consumption of human bodies in fires". Science & Justice 39 (1): 27–38.
  14. ^ Watson, Stephanie. "How Spontaneous Human Combustion Works". HowStuffWorks. HowStuffWorks Inc.. Retrieved 24 September 2011.
  15. ^ Joe Nickell (Nov–December 1996). "Not-so-spontaneous human combustion". Skeptical Inquirer. Retrieved 16 August 2010.
  16. ^ Ford, Brian J. (2012). "Solving the Mystery of Spontaneous Human Combustion". The Microscope (60): 63–72. Retrieved 23 August 2012.
  17. ^ Ford, Brian J. (18 August 2012). "The big burn theory". NewScientist: 30–31. Retrieved 23 August 2012.
  18. ^ Lee B Croft. “People in Threes Going Up In Smoke and Other Triplicities in Russian Literature and Culture” The Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, Vol. 59, No. 2 (2005), pp. l 29–49
  19. ^ "Does Spontaneous Human Combustion Exist?". BBC News. 21 November 2005. Retrieved 11 March 2011.
  20. ^ Verne, Jules (17 June 2004). Dick Sand a Captain at Fifteen. Kessinger Publishing, LLC. p. 279. ISBN 978-1-4191-1605-6.
  21. ^ "Crimelab.NL - CSI - Transcripts - Season 1 - Face Lift". Retrieved 12 July 2012.

[edit] External links

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