Natural human combustion: Is it actually possible for people to spontaneously burst into flames?

Monday, June 20, 2016 by

There have been reports of people spontaneously bursting into flames for well over a century. While spontaneous human combustion is a fairly recent term to take flame, its roots trace back to the 1800s. But is spontaneous combustion real or a myth that has spread like wildfire?

Fires do not usually ignite themselves. When inspectors look for the cause of a fire, they assume the fire had an origin. This assumption, otherwise known as the principle of sufficient reason, is widely exercised in science. It states every event is the result of an antecedent cause or sufficient condition. Spontaneous combustion seems to violate this principle, as it suggests people can sporadically bust into flames without a rhyme or reason.

Everyone knows bodies burn. In fact, crematoriums are dedicated to just this task. What makes spontaneous human combustion odd is that there is no apparent source of the ignition, like a fire pit nearby that a person might have fallen into. In addition, the victim’s body is burned, not just part of their arm or leg. Some people report the burn originates in the stomach or chest, keeping the legs and hands in tact.

Spontaneous combustion busted

Some reports of spontaneous combustion are incorrect. There are several photos of individuals who presumably burst into flames, which reveal burnt clothes surrounding the victim’s body. Many fires burn out themselves once they exhaust the available fuel. For example, it’s possible for a sofa to take flame without spreading to neighboring furniture. Since fires tend to burn vertically instead of horizontally, there is nothing significantly abnormal about discovering a burnt victim in a room that was not itself engulfed by flames.

Various explanations have been offered that attempt to explain cases of spontaneous combustion. People used to attribute spontaneous combustion to the wrath of God, as many of the victims were presumed to be drunks who had cells infused with alcohol. More recently, some have proposed the “wick theory,” which purports human body fat is like a wax that keeps a candle burning.

Unfortunately, there is no scientific warrant to any of these claims. The human body is made of approximately 60 to 70 percent of non-flammable water. There is no internal mechanism that could explain why a person would spontaneously self-combust. If people really did burst into flames without being close to a fire, then we ought to find instances of  people bursting into flames while swimming or taking a bath.

There is a rare medical condition known as Stevens-Johnson syndrome that, in some instances, can be misinterpreted as spontaneous human combustion. The skin disease can be provoked by a noxious reaction to a medication, such as antibiotics and painkillers, which gives the appearance of severe burns and blisters.

Liar, liar pants on fire

Although there is no evidence that spontaneous human combustion is real, every once in a while, the phenomena makes news headlines again. For example, back in January, the Daily Mail posted a video of a man peacefully lying on the ground while on fire, which was reported as a rare case of spontaneous combustion.

In the video, a man approaches the burned victim, asking, “What’s happening?” Yet the burning man simply waves at the camera, acting as if everything is normal. The video was originally posted on a Facebook page known as “Live from the streets of Novi Sad.”

But if spontaneous combustion is real, why doesn’t it happen more often, not just in people, but in other animals as well? There have been around 200 reports of spontaneous human combustion throughout history. At present, there are seven billion people in the world. In most cases, the victims are old, sick or under the influence of alcohol, which could explain why they were unable to put out the flames.

So what is the conclusion? Most instances of spontaneous human combustion are simply cases of a liar liar with pants on fire.

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