Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Should you burst into flames...

It is an area of the paranormal about which I know little.

Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) is a phenomenon I certainly have heard of, but it just wasn’t as sexy to me as other unexplained mysteries.  For the sake of diversity in posting, I decided to look into it.  My first stop was Wikipedia.

Oh come on.  Admit it.  It’s the first place you go too, particularly when you just want a quick summary.  I certainly wouldn’t cite anything from Wiki in an academic paper or as evidence in a post, but I likewise do not intend for this to be a formal treatise on SHC.  Moving on.

As the term implies, Spontaneous Human Combustion is when the human body bursts into flames from no (apparent) source of ignition.  The Wiki article cites 16 supposed cases of this, dating from 1470 to 2010.  I find it interesting that in all but four of the incidents listed, all were in either the United States or the British Isles.  Apparently, there are other commonalities that these purported cases hold.  Chief among them:

-The body is completely incinerated while nearby furniture and other items are unmarred.  If anything remains of the body, it is typically an extremity such as an arm or a leg.
-The fire is centered in the torso.
-There is no trace of an accelerant.
-The victim was usually alone at the time of death.
-There is no sign of struggle or that the victim seemed to skirr, trying to douse the flames.
-Almost all victims were people with low mobility, meaning they were injured, elderly, ill, or morbidly obese.  Perhaps various combinations of all of the above.

Those last two points when taken in tandem point towards rather prosaic explanations.  A dropped cigarette would do the job.  Cigarettes are already the number one culprit in home fires in the United States.  In the case of the obese, it is proposed that the “wick effect” might come into play.  This means that the individual’s clothes are exposed to a heat source; let’s say a cigarette to stay in keeping with the model.  The clothes alight, the fire burns through the skin, and from there, human fat acts as a fuel source.  Boom.  Pretty basic.

Or is it?

In 2005, a scientist named Zhiyu Hu posited that combustion could occur at room temperature with no external ignition source.  Natural organisms such as microbes, plants and animals obtain energy from oxidation of the same organic chemicals at their physiological, or body, temperatures.  Hu took nanometer-sized particles of platinum and placed them in with glass wool and methanol.  A “nano-catalytic reaction occurs.”  Spontaneous combustion.

In addition to becoming perhaps as valuable of a discovery as cold fusion one day (hopefully) will be in terms of energy, does this mean that there is such a thing as SHC?  Were the suspected victims of SHC within a set of variables that combined into a catalyst with a fiery result?  Not necessarily.  Although if the further testing on Dr. Hu’s efforts have supported his theory then the SHC phenomenon might be something attributed to a reaction hitherto unknown and occurring only under the rarest of combined circumstances.  After all, if there is the possibility that a sort of "cold combustion" may take place in other materials, why not within humans on very rare occasions?

Despite this new-to-me finding, the more simple and ordinary theories behind supposed SHC seem the most likely to me.  Just to be on the safe side, however, carry a fire extinguisher.

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