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Spontaneous Human Combustion Explained?

Last year an Irish coroner made headlines by ruling the death of a pensioner as having been caused by “spontaneous human combustion”. Though there have been reports of the phenomenon for some 500 years, spontaneous combustion has long inhabited the edges of science, with many writing if off as a spurious mystery. Others though have attempted to solve the mystery scientifically, such as research biologist and author Professor Brian J. Ford. In the wake (no pun intended) of the Irish case, last November Ford put forward his own idea as to how SHC occurs, based around a specific medical note in the case:

The cue comes from the coroner’s account of Michael Faherty, who reported that the dead man had been diabetic. Many of the victims of SGC have been obese, and obesity can trigger Type 2 diabetes. The disordered metabolism results in ketone bodies, like acetone; indeed the tell-tale odour on the breath is often indicative of the disorder… It is a highly inflammable gas: as little as 2.6% in air can explode and its flashpoint is -17.8 degrees C. It can also cause flashback, where a trail of methane can lead ignition back to the source. Acetone is miscible with lipids and could surely render body fat – itself combustible – into a highly flammable compound.

In my view, this offers the perfect explanation. A patient experiences ketosis; acetone and its allies form a reserve in teh fatty tissues of the body and collect in gaseous form under the clothing; the patient is thus potentially inflammable. A static spark from fabric or combing the hair could set off fierce combustion. The energy required to trigger an explosion of gaseous hydrocarbons is as little as 0.02mJ, which falls below the threshold of human perception, whereas static sparks from clothing can produce a painful jolt.

The reported cases support my proposal perfectly. Many of the victims have high levels of body fat, which provide the fuel depot and the likelihood of ketosis. The relatively fat-free extremities often survive the conflagration relatively intact, likewise the heart and intestines. The areas that are consumed are centred around the abdomen, which is where primary fat deposits accumulate.

This is a proposal that should now be investigated.

Since that time, Ford himself has done exactly that, as illustrated in the video lecture excerpts above. He took abdominal tissue from pigs and marinated it in acetone, then made scale models of humans from it and dressed them in clothes. Upon lighting, the models burned to ash within 30 minutes, leaving only protruding limbs – a similar facet to actual reports of SHC, as noted by Ford himself.

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  1. Greg Baby You’re On Fire!
    Greg this’s the best ‘normal’ explanation I’ve come across so far.

    I’ve known people with that sort of chemically alcohol-like breath Prof Ford refers to.

    In fact one of them laughed uproariously at some quip I’d made just as I was breathing in and my lungs felt scorched and it made my head swim in the most unpleasant manner.

    Based on that experience alone I find Prof Ford’s explanation highly likely but I’ve also noticed such people tend to be highly sedentary and when they finally do move there’s usely been some sort of chemically gaseous build up in their clothes or on their skin.

    It’s certainly better than the skeptical documentary I once watched where they explained how someone must’ve been walking past a ten foot high fence while smoking then thrown the lit butt away only for it to be caught on a breeze wafted over the fence and carried 180ft across the victim’s lawn before being squeezed in through a tiny crack in the victim’s slightly opened window to land on his unwitting body and set him alight.

    Or the one in the episode of CSI where Grissom got his underlings to prove there was nothing supernatural to it by roasting a pig for eight hours in a specially ventilated until it finaly began to burn.

    1. There was a good documentary
      There was a good documentary on this case some years back on the telly which convincingly made the case for the human body being a fat candle that will smolder like this. It did not require the alcohols, etc to be a part of the drama.

  2. I can see the acetone being
    I can see the acetone being the catalyst but to render the entire human body to ash? (with a few appendages left). I am not sure about that. Consider the heat and length of time required to cremate a body. Much greater than would be produced by a body with no containment of the heat….also the heat required would definitely scorch more than just the immediate area… I don’t think this is a supernatural scenario but there are a few questions unanswered with this solution.

    1. The use of a pig to model it
      The use of a pig to model it explains it all. Humans have a lot of body fat just like pigs, and that pig burned to ash. I am not sure the acetone was even required though.

  3. SHC
    This still leaves out the fact that these folks catch fire and burn slowly without noticing. They die in place without calling for help or even running around in a panic. There is also the fact that an external source of ignition is almost always present. In many cases, the victim is an alcoholic. My thought is that since the human body is mostly made of salt water (Sodium, Chlorine, Hydrogen, Oxygen and in these cases, alcohol), perhaps there are rare circumstances where these elements can separate and cause a highly flammable cascade of reactions that would occur quickly. An incendiary flash that would not last long enough to spread to the surrounding materials. Hard to test that theory humanely though!

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