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Should We Be Afraid of Spontaneous Human Combustion?

Autor: Langloo
Poziom: Średniozaawansowany

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I just read an article about SHC – Spontaneous Human Combustion – or the sudden ignition of a human body into a burst of flames with no apparent external source of spark, flame or fuel other than the victim's own clothing. You can view the webpage for yourself at The page isn't all that well done and the whole thing wouldn't even be worth mentioning if it weren't for one paragraph that left me chuckling:

'Does the body have chemical reactions that science has yet to discover? It seems that an internal reaction of some kind is the most likely explanation for these deaths, but what triggers it? Can it be detected? Avoided?'

Obviously the authors, Dave Juliano and Tina Carlson, buy into some rather silly arguments for the existence of SHC as being caused by some mysterious act of biological chemistry or nuclear physics, while at the same time ruling out the equally ludicrous idea of ball lightning as being the cause, since a large number of the cases have occurred indoors.

In actual fact all of the more legitimate cases have indeed occurred indoors – the ones where otherwise adept police investigators have resorted to SHC as a possible cause of death because they lacked another reasonable explanation that matched the facts (and their jobs required them to write something in order to close the books whether they believed what they wrote or not). In such cases the torsos were reduced to ashes, leaving only the legs or feet and sometimes the head or lower arms and hands. Invariably the victims were alone, predominantly female and frequently older. They were usually smokers and often known to either drink or consume sleeping pills or other drugs that can cause deep unconsciousness. Simple cigarette or clothing fires were discarded by the detectives as improbable because it is generally assumed that extreme heat of more than 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit is required to completely cremate large bones and in each one of these cases the only area of the room that was burned was a portion of the chair, bed or carpet where the body was found, while the rest of the room exhibitedminor evidence of heat damage.

All of this does logically fit the concept of a body that spontaneously erupts into flame, burns at extreme temperatures for a short time and then extinguishes itself from lack of oxygen... that is, if a chemical mechanism for such a thing really existed. But realistically our bodies are mostly made of water, the methane gas that we produce is hardly enough to light a match (I promise – the fart lighting scene in Dumb and Dumber was purely pyrotechnics) and the nuclear particle theory is about as sensible as the idea that aliens are zapping people in their bedrooms with ray guns.

Okay, okay, if you haven't read about the particle theory I'll tell you why it's moronic, but I really do have something I want to tell you so this will be the last one, okay? There is ahypothesis that some rare, unknown and very strange nuclear particle dubbed a 'pyroton' that hurtles through space, and when it strikes a human, the water molecules in our body suddenly unhinge into a highly combustible mixture of hydrogen and oxygen gases and POOF! There we were. If that scenario were real then such events would not occur only in closed rooms, so somewhere on YouTube there would have to be un-doctored videos of people on crowded streets, or at least cows in open pastures, suddenly vanishing in fireballs worthy of Hollywood. Obviously, if videos like that did exist they would be so hilarious that they would become instant viral hits with millions of views and you'd find them at the top of any logical search. So go ahead. Search for 'Cows or people suddenly igniting.' I know you want to.

Happy now? Good. Actually I have to confess that I was a little disappointed because I would have enjoyed the laugh. Anyway, before I move on I'll quickly tell you that since the mid-1960's the forensic circumstances I described earlier – closed room, unconscious victim, usually a smoker, etc. – has been neatly explained with something called the wick theory, which has been replicated in the laboratory, observed in real forensic cases and proven to exist. The basic idea is that if a person is deeply sedated enough and a fire begins in clothing that is close to the skin, tissues will dry and crack exposing fatty fluids under the skin, soaking the clothing and turning it into a sort of candle or oil-lamp where the wick surrounds the fuel instead of vice-versa. The body fat will burn very slowly at relatively low temperatures, but for long enough to completely cremate most of the body. The legs of a seated person will usually be spared because fire produces heat upward and not downward. Therefore, in much the same way that the bottom of a match often burns out, so will parts of a body once all clothing (the 'wick') burns away. I won't go into it in detail but you can find out more and see a very nice flash presentation on it at

So, finally, here is the part that caught my imagination in the article by Juliano and Carlson. Acknowledging that SHC must be real, they then ask, '... but what triggers it? Can it be detected? Avoided?'

Yes, dear readers, be afraid. Be VERY afraid. As if you didn't have enough to worry about, you need to panic over the idea that somewhere, at some unknown moment, you are going to evaporate in a cloud of smoke thanks to some unexplained trick of biochemistry or physics. In all of the nearly 350 years since SHC was first thought to exist there have been perhaps 200 cases of such an anomaly occurring, a tiny fraction of the number of cases in which people have been, say, struck by lightning or even killed by planes dropping out of the air. After considering the odds for a sufficiently long enough period of time (less than one second), I've decided to take my chances.

But what should you do if you are really afraid of being the next victim of SHC? Well, first of all don't smoke and don't take sleeping pills or pass out from alcohol if you do. And if you can't avoid doing those together then get rid of the potential wick by making sure you pass out naked and that you aren't alone.

Hmm... now that I think about it maybe I SHOULD be more careful to avoid SHC?

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