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Spontaneous Human Combustion? Be afraid...Be very afraid!

Updated on October 12, 2013
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What is Spontaneous Combustion?

Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) is the alleged process of a human body catching fire as a result of heat generated by an internal chemical or nuclear action with no apparent outside source of ignition. It is not a proven natural occurrence, but there have been reports of humans who have seemingly vanished with nothing left in the room but a pile of ashes; and evidently, nothing else in the room had burned.

As of 1995 there have been about 200 cases cited worldwide over a period of about 300 years. Quite rare, it seems, but the thought of it happening to oneself is disturbing, to say the least.

To explore the possibility, let's answer some burning questions--pun intended.

What causes Spontaneous Human Combustion?

The most agreed upon explanations are:

  1. The conversion of food, within the intestinal tract, into methane. When the methane is released through the pores of the skin a fire can ignite when triggered by various sources outside the body, such as friction caused by silk clothing.
  2. Raised levels of blood alcohol.
  3. Smoking cigarettes.
  4. Dehydration--not consuming enough water.
  5. Any combination of the above.

In many cases of alleged SHC, the victim appeared to have been smoking and consuming alcohol.

Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker--Ogden Nash. It really is! Whimsical poet Ogden Nash made a much more intuitive observation than he may have imagined.

When you drink alcohol, it runs through the bloodstream instantly and is just as quickly distributed to all the tissues of the body where it is metabolized.

Sugar can also be dumped into the bloodstream, especially if the pancreas is not functioning efficiently--as in diabetes; and it also can move quickly, but not instantly as does alcohol.

Candy and liquor--or sugar and alcohol--are also close cousins. Consider the chemical formulas for a molecule of alcohol--C2H5OH and that of sugar--C12H22O11. They are both composed of the same elements: Carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. These three elements are well-known to support the process of combustion. We will take a look at this a bit later on.

What steps can you take? If the thought of spontaneously combusting so deeply disturbs you, there are some very simple--also obvious--things you can do, and not do.

  1. Avoid alcohol consumption. The advantages of being alcohol-free greatly outweigh any health benefits of alcohol consumption. "...alcohol is a general toxin--in other words, it can travel anywhere in you body because there's nothing to stop it...and anywhere it goes, it can potentially cause problems"--Anne Geller, M.D., Roosevelt Hospital Center, New York City.
  2. Don't smoke, just don't--there's no explanation needed here.
  3. Avoid sugar, alcohol's cousin.
  4. Avoid any combination of the above.
  5. Stay hydrated. This is of paramount importance and can save you from all chances of SHC. There are so many benefits to drinking plenty of water--it lessens the storage of fat, fends off signs of aging, combats the effects of stress, to name a few. Also, it is the amount of water in your tissues that protect them against the damaging effects of alcohol, including its ability to combust. So, if you must consume alcohol, drink lots of water. Also, drink water to counteract the effects of sugar intake. But as in all cases, consult your doctor. There are some health conditions for which small amounts of water intake are prescribed and large amounts are dangerous.
  6. Avoid caffeine. It has a dehydrating effect. Drink equal amounts of water and coffee or tea to counteract the effects of caffeine.
  7. Fevers. Be especially careful to avoid the conditions that favor combustion during times of fever which already elevates body temperature.
  8. A special precaution to women! Raised body temperatures during the classic hot flashes of menopause, and also during the premenstrual stage, produce more body heat into the mix, and therefore raise the chances of Spontaneous Human Combustion. So at these times in particular, it is best to avoid alcohol, smoking, sugar and caffeine, and to consume healthful amounts of water.

So What Exactly is Combustion or Burning? Why SHC is Possible.

Oxidation. Simply put, burning is oxidation. All substances contain chemical energy. Chemical energy, under certain conditions, can be converted into heat and light energy. These conditions cause oxidation, that is, the substance unites with the oxygen in the air.

Combustion reactions take place at different rates of speed depending upon the concentration and nature of the combustible substance and the amount of oxygen available.

Is that rusty nail on fire? Generally speaking, it is! Oxidation can take place slowly, in which case the heat and light cannot be detected by the unaided human eye; or quickly, in which case we can see and feel the process which we call "burning". It all depends on the rate of oxidation.

When iron is rusting, it is oxidizing. In a way, it is burning, although very slowly. Burning and rusting are the same kind of chemical change. In both cases oxygen unites with the substance and produces oxides. But in the process of rusting, the iron unites so slowly with oxygen that there is very little heat produced and no light is apparent.

Digestion. During the process of digestion, oxygen combines slowly with food. In other words food undergoes oxidation.

Oily Rags. Sometimes combustible materials make themselves, or become seemingly on their own, hot enough to burn. This happens with good old fashioned oily rags that have wiped up linseed oil (a.k.a. flaxseed oil) or paint made from it.

This problem was more common in the past than it is now, since paints today are usually water-based; but linseed oil is still used in industry, and shop owners are aware of the danger. The oil in the rags combines slowly with the oxygen in the air. This chemical change gives out heat. When spread out over the side of a house as oil-based paint, or if the rags are spread out, the heat passes off into the air. However, in a pile of oily rags the heat is held in. The rags warm until they reach their kindling temperature and burn, or burst into flames.

All things have the ability to oxidize. Because all things contain chemical energy, anything can produce heat and light--or burn--including us! So be wise, don't smoke, drink and oxidize!

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Famous Combustibles: Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen

Remember, that these three are the elements of which alcohol and sugar are composed.

  1. Hydrogen. It is a well-known fact that hydrogen and oxygen will combine explosively if a spark is present. In an explosion, oxidation is very rapid. Mention 'hydrogen' and 'explosion' together in the same sentence, and almost everyone will call to mind the fate of the largest dirigible ever built, the Hindenburg. On May 6, 1947, just as it was mooring, its hydrogen-filled envelope burst into flames. The exact cause is not known, but clearly, hydrogen and oxygen combined in the presence of some source of ignition--or spark--perhaps an electrical charge.
  2. Oxygen. In order for any combustion to take place oxygen must be present, for it is the joining with oxygen that causes a substance to oxidize. It is commonly said that oxygen supports combustion. But it should be noted here that oxidation can also take place in the presence of other substances such as chlorine and hydrochloric acid.
  3. Carbon. A familiar fuel in the form of coal or charcoal for the grill, carbon burns steadily when heated and bursts into flames when united with oxygen.


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What Happens When a Candle Burns?

  1. Paraffin wax becomes a liquid as it melts in the heat of the flame, and soaks the wick.
  2. Close to the wick, the liquid paraffin changes to a gas. Paraffin, a solid white compound of hydrogen and carbon, breaks up and is separated into its elements as carbon gas and hydrogen gas. This occurs inside the flame.
  3. Some of the carbon, as solid black particles, becomes hot and glows yellow in the flame. It is the carbon that gives us candlelight.
  4. As the carbon and hydrogen gases reach the air outside the flame, the carbon unites with the oxygen in the air and produces carbon dioxide gas; and the hydrogen gas unites with the oxygen in the air and produces hydrogen oxide, better known as water vapor.

There are three distinct zones in a candle flame:

  1. The innermost zone directly above the wick containing the wax vapors that have just been vaporized, as described above. This is the coolest zone.
  2. The middle zone, the yellow portion of the flame. This is the oxygen depleted zone where partial oxidation has occurred. The oxygen present is insufficient to burn all of the vapors present. This is why the candle glows. It is where some the carbon remains solid and is responsible for the yellow glow. This region is hotter than the innermost zone.
  3. The outer zone where the flame is hottest and oxidation is complete.

All fuels contain compounds of hydrogen and carbon. Some also contain carbon and minerals that are mixed with these compounds.

When any fuel burns, the carbon and hydrogen unite with the oxygen in the air and form carbon dioxide gas and water vapor. These travel off into the air.

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Portable Fire--A Short History

What is in a Tinderbox? Tinder, of course! To make tinder, which is simply a dry substance that takes fire easily, the pioneers heated cotton and linen cloth in the oven until it was brown and ready to burn; or, they shredded and dried the bark of certain trees. Then they stored the tinder in a small tin box to keep it perfectly dry--this was the tinder box.

In order to make a fire they placed some tinder on the ground and then struck a piece of flint against a piece of steel--items that were always at the ready--and the spark set the tinder aflame. From this, wood could be lighted for the stove.

If the pioneer woman could not make a fire, she would carry an iron kettle for miles to 'borrow fire' from a neighbor.

When chemists found that mixing chemicals could make enough heat for fire, matches were invented.

Strike-Anywhere or Safety Match? At one time there was a choice. Until recently, the matches we use today were widely termed 'safety matches'. The earliest matches contained all the chemicals necessary to easily light in the match tip. These 'strike-anywhere matches' often started fires on there own, and were at times responsible for house-fires. In health books of the 1920s or so, school children were taught to warn their parents to keep these matches in a closed metal container.

Bottled chemical fire-making devices came before the first true matches:

  1. Ethereal Match or Phosphoric Candle--France 1781. A twist of paper tipped with phosphorus and sealed in a glass tube. When the tube was broken, the tip was set afire when it met with the oxygen in the air.
  2. Pocket Luminary--Italy 1786. A bottle lined with oxide of phosphorus. Chemically treated splints struck against phosphorus on the inside of the bottle would flame when drawn out into the air.
  3. Instantaneous Light Box--France 1805. A bottle containing a fabric soaked in sulfuric acid. It came with 50 chemically treated splints. It was popular in the United States for forty years and sold for $2.00.

What Happens If You Play With Matches? All Sorts of Things!

By the early 1800's matches began to take on the familiar shape as we know them today:

  1. The Congreve. In 1827, John Walker, an English pharmacist, made and sold three-inch splinters of wood tipped with antimony sulfide, chlorate of potash and gum Arabic. They were sold with a sheet of paper similar to sandpaper, but called glass paper. The new matches came to be named 'Congreves'. When drawn between a fold of the glass paper it burst into flame with a series of explosions which showered the user with sparks. It burned with an acrid odor.
  2. Lucifers. Around the time of the Congreve, Samuel Johnes invented boxed matches which came with a warning: "If possible, avoid inhaling gas that escapes from the combustions of the black composition. Person whose lungs are delicate should by no means use Lucifers."
  3. The First Strike-Anywhere Match. The striking tip was composed of white or yellow phosphorus. It was developed by Doctor Charles Sauria of France in 1830. The fumes crippled and killed thousands with a disease known as necrosis. The deadly poison of the tips was used in murders and suicides.
  4. Strike-Anywhere in the U.S.A. Alonzo Dwight Phillips patented the first phosphorus matches in the United States. He made his own matches and boxes by hand in Springfield, Massachusetts and sold them door to door. As the manufacturing of these matches moved from the cottage industry to factory industry, workers were exposed to the poisonous fumes and the death rate from necrosis was alarming. In 1910, because of the threat of necrosis, the United States government placed a heavy tax on yellow phosphorus matches and the match industry nearly died out.
  5. Duds...in the U.S.A. In 1900 The Diamond Match Company purchased a French patent for making matches with tips of sesquisulfide of phosphorus, a non-poisonous compound. However, the French formula did not work in the United States because of the difference in climate.
  6. A Safe Strike-Anywhere Match for U.S. In 1911, young naval architect, William Armstrong Fairburn adapted the French formula to the climate of the United States. The match industry was saved and the threat of necrosis ended.
  7. The First Safety Matches. Gustave E. Pasch, a Swedish chemist, invented safety matches in 1844. By 1852, manufacturer John Lundstrom began to produce them in large quantities.
  8. Three on a Match. The Safety Match industry was centered in Sweden for many years. In 1913, the Swedish Match Company was formed by Ivar Kreuger, a Swedish promoter. It was a huge international empire that had factories in 43 countries and manufactured most of the world's matches. Krueger was called the Match King, and is said to have invented the superstition that 'three on a match is bad luck' in order to sell more matches. His empire lasted until 1932, when it was found that he used company funds for private speculation. He later committed suicide.

Book Matches and Waterproof Matches

  1. The First Book Matches. In 1892, John Pusey, a Philadelphia patent lawyer invented book matches. Book matches did not become popular at first, since the striking surface was on the inside cover and dangerously close to the match heads.
  2. Safer Book Matches. By 1914, the Diamond Match Company had purchased Pusey's patent and made book matches safe, so that they rose to popularity.
  3. Waterproof Matches. During World War II, the United States called upon its match industry to produce a waterproof match for troops that were to be deployed to Japan where long rainy seasons prevail. In 1943, Raymond Davis Cady of Oswego, New York, produced a formula to coat wooden matches so that they would light after up to eight hours under water. The substance was water-resistant and heat-resistant yet did not interfere with the creation of enough friction to light it.

So, there's a lot of history in that little match box!

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    • Joel Okimoto profile image

      Kai Morris 3 years ago from London

      Great article. I've always been interested in spontaneous combustion. This was a joy to read!

    • Barbara Kay profile image

      Barbara Kay Badder 3 years ago from USA

      This is interesting and scary at the same time.

    • tony55 profile image

      femi 3 years ago from Nigeria

      i love the analysis and suggestions, the concept of spontaneous combustion is interesting a little scary and could actually happen? i can't be sure although i have watched some documentaries that attest to the fact. can the science be calculated probably, looking forward to seeing some more of your stuff, nice article.

    • JLopera profile image
      Author

      JLopera 3 years ago

      Thank you all! It was fun writing it. I was a little scared too. That is why I explored it a bit.

    • Oscarlites profile image

      Oscar Jones 3 years ago from Alabama

      geez.. how many times on the hikes, and climbs I've been on and couldn't get a regular match to work.. I had to use propane, or some other ignition source. but also in subzero, there were times it was too cold for propane to light! needless to say, now I carry several kinds of lighters, and igniters, and oh you can't imagine all the types of fire-starters I have and still use! but the fires of the heart are the ones I'm talking about.. spontaneous heart combustion? thanks for the great hub!!!!!!!

    • LastRoseofSummer2 profile image

      LastRoseofSummer2 3 years ago from Arizona

      The first "case" of spontaneous human combustion I had ever heard of was the mysterious fiery death of one of the characters in Dickens' "Bleak House". The man was known to be a drunk - in particular he was known for consuming low-grade moonshine. So his death was ruled to be caused by accidental spontaneous combustion.

      Great writing!

    • Colleen Swan profile image

      Colleen Swan 3 years ago from County Durham

      I am worried that my husband might catch fire; or am I?

    • profile image

      Brenda Durham 3 years ago

      hahhaaa I just had to laugh at your question, Colleen!

    • Hezekiah profile image

      Hezekiah 3 years ago from Japan

      I know some people spark of static more than others, this may result in an explosion around flammable gas but that's the only explanation I can think of.

    • JLopera profile image
      Author

      JLopera 3 years ago

      Thank you for these wonderful comments! I did not know about Bleak House. It would have made good text for my article. I'm just glad my writing was enjoyed.

    • brittpinkie profile image

      Brittany Doherty 3 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Haha, I used to be fascinated with spontaneous human combustion! Interesting artcile, thanks for sharing :)

    • SamitaJassi profile image

      Samita Sharma 3 years ago from Chandigarh

      Very interesting hub........

    • loveofnight profile image

      loveofnight 3 years ago from Baltimore, Maryland

      great job, this is truly an in-dept review on shc. i have learned a lot here, thanks for the share.

    • JPSO138 profile image

      JPSO138 3 years ago from Cebu, Philippines, International

      Wow, this is certainly interesting. Honestly, this is the first time I have heard about human combustion. I am familiar of spontaneous ignition temperature where objects or materials spontaneously ignite, but humans.. very interesting indeed.

    • Angela Kane profile image

      Angela Kane 3 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada

      Very useful and interesting hub. I never knew what caused spontaneous combustion, it was always a mystery to me until I read the some of the causes above. Thanks for the information.

    • jaystoler profile image

      jaystoler 3 years ago

      This is a delightful article that does all the right things. Pulls you in with a great title and pays off with a first rate argument that keeps the embers of this article glowing. Going from whimsical to possible in a witty but "Uh-oh" kind of way. The extended science lesson is a useful condensation of scientifically supporting facts. The chart of those at risk is enough to make anyone reconsider some consumption habits. Nice work.

    • WiccanSage profile image

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 3 years ago

      Interesting. I had no idea there were scientific theories supporting SHC. The very idea is creepy. Yikes. Interesting hub.

    • Diana Lee profile image

      Diana L Pierce 3 years ago from Potter County, Pa.

      I've heard of SHC. I knew it was a rare event, but I had no idea it was as rare as 200 victims. There was a story told about a doctor in Coudersport, Pa. (not far from where I live) in 1966 who died from an unknown fire confined to his bedroom. He was all that burned. They claimed it was Spontaneous Human Combustion.

    • JLopera profile image
      Author

      JLopera 3 years ago

      Hi Diana, Thank you for sharing this true story. It is interesting but tragic. Once, when listening to the radio, I heard a string of true incidents of Spontaneous Human Combustion.

    • tony55 profile image

      femi 3 years ago from Nigeria

      scary stuff.......

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