Do No Harm

We didn't start the fire

Fire! Fire! Understanding Spontaneous Human Combustion is not easy. Image by Gerd Altmanm, via Pixabay, under Creative Commons.

Fire! Fire! Understanding Spontaneous Human Combustion is not easy. Image by Gerd Altmanm, via Pixabay, under Creative Commons.  


The recent case of a baby bursting into flames spontaneously has evoked the term Spontaneous Human Combustion in our midst. Is there a science behind it, or is it just the poltergeist?

Baby on fire

Rahul was nine days old when his mother says he first caught fire. Yes, just like that, out of the blue, flames on the little baby's body. The baby's mother Rajeswari said so.

She also said that subsequenty the baby had spontaneously set himself ablaze three other times, and he had to be doused out. Three months later, they brought the baby to Kilpauk Medical Hospital, Chennai. As the baby slept, in his nappy, an IV line going through his slender wrist, the evidence of those burns were apparent. The kind of burns that make you flinch.

Conspiracy theories abound

The family comes from a remote village in Villupuram district, Tamil Nadu. A village where they say huts caught fire inexplicably, suddently, without apparent provocation. Turns out later that arsonists mixed phosphorous in wet cow dung and when the dung dried up, the phosphorus caught fire. When a baby seemed to burst out in flames all by himself, the villagers grew suspicious. How could such a thing happen? They began with evil spirits and finally reasoned that it must be the parents: they were arsonists. And they set their baby afire.

> > Human beings are made that way: the worse specimens tend to abuse children; they hurl accusations without basis, they inovke spirits, and they hang people without a trial. But what does not make sense is why a family wanting to kill a boy baby (in a country where the arrival of a boy is celebrated) will douse the flames after first setting the child on fire.

The mother is perplexed by these conspiracy theories that ricochet off her frequently. But what really bothers her is her young son busting into flames: naturally, it scares her.

Voila! Spontaneous Human Combustion

In the absence of any evidence to show the contrary, the good doctors browsed the Web long and hard, first concluded that Baby Rahul was probably a classic spontaneous human combustion (SHC).

Before we go on to science let's just bust one more conspiracy theory that had been floating around: The mother was doing it deliberately for publicity. Which would make sense if she was aware of SHC, as a concept. Now, Rajeswari is unlettered, or barely literate. If we presume that she had apriori knowledge of spontaneous human combustion, then we might as well ask her to explain the science behind it, instead of the doctors who have their knickers in a twist, trying to figure out whoddunit.

Meanwhile, they have arrived at a simplistic answer: child abuse. The logic being the child was not burnt on his back, but only on the front of his torso, the chest and abdomen, besides the head. Since an infant, 3 months old or less, spends all the time on the back, it's not surprising the baby has an unscathed back. So, pfffft to your easy-way-out child abuse theory. Bust, in my opinion, again.

Science, Lies and much fumbling

And, now science. Or is it science.

Spontaneous Human Combustion actually doesn't explain much - it just confesses man's ignorance at what happens; etiology unknown; cause unclear. When there is no known external source of ignition for a human body catching fire, we say SHC.

Let's see if we can get at this working from the basics.

Starting a fire

So, how do we start a fire? You need oxygen, heat and fuel?

Oxygen, there is plenty of where we live; the body generates heat, we know, and as for fuel, all that flesh and fat must count for something. And yet, we don't all burst into flame.

Those studying SCH do so with skepticism, because they are only defining it as the indefinable. That's hardly a definition. We're not talking mysticism here, we're talking science, and science is in the business of providing plausible explanations.

Often explanations are based on hypotheses. So the scientists work backwards to construct a plausible tale that would explain Spontaneous Human Combustion.

> threshes all the reasons out in a pretty kicking-the-derriere manner. Here goes:

1.Methane, a highly inflammable gas, is being generated in the intestines. Possible, the intestines have to process a lot of crap. And that they are set ablaze by enzymes within the body. Which means combustion, which is how a car engine burns fuel to move, say, happens inside the body. Except, since there is more external damage than to the internal organs, the authors don't think much of this.

2.Buildup of static electricity inside the body or from an external geomagnetic force exerted on the body. The authors quote Larry Arnold, a self-proclaimed expert on spontaneous human combustion, who suggested that the phenomenon is the work of a new subatomic particle called a pyroton, which interacts with cells to cause a mini explosion. But the pyroton had not showed itself so far.

There go two plausible theories. Felled by logic.

The ingiting spark

So let us suppose there are igniting factors in the form of sparks in a room that is electrified. And that the person who will combust shortly might have on his or her person something eminently combustible: clothing. The infinitesimal sparks fall on the material that immediately catches fire, flames break out and burns ensue in a manner that is predictable in cases of SHC: the torso and head are burnt.

Again we must ask. Certainly, there are a number of people wearing clothing living in rooms with electrical fittings, but it doesn't happen to all.They walk around with mobile phones, tablets, all of which require some form of electrical charge to live. The spark could equally come from any source of fire in the room: lighted candles, incense sticks, smouldering cigarette butts.

Going back to Rahul, the 201st reported case of SHC in 300 years, any of those trigger factors could have been present, in fact, all of them. And an infant is mostly swaddled in soft cotton in this part of the country. Cotton, by the way, is perfect combustible material- it ignites fast and burns even faster.

A baby, at that age, as we have already said, is prone and pretty immobile unless carried, so that might explain the rather ghastly burns, in classic SHC patterns on the torso and head.

But if all these factors existed, there is enough reason to believe that others in the household were/are dressed similarly, and are exposed to the same igniting spores. None of them caught fire: Not Rajeswari, not her husband Karna and not even their first born, a daughter.

And thus we come back to SHC, the non definition. Meanwhile, the doctors have sent samples of the baby's blood and sweat for testing. Metabolic and functional anomalies will shine through the test tube and stained slide, they hope. And, explain why Baby Rahul tends to light up without obvious provocation. Perhaps arson experts and those advancing the SHC theory globally could take a look at this case. Perhaps, Rahul can provide the elusive explanation.

While we are at it, will do us good to remember that Rahul's still a babe in arms, not a lab rat. Let's be excited by the challenging possibilities of finding an answer, but let's not forget that the living baby needs to be accorded dignity too.

Until we know more, however, there is always Billy Joel. We do know,

"We didn't start the fire; it was always burning; since the world's been turning. We didn't start the fire; no we didn't light it; But we tried to fight it."

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2020 1:13:35 AM |

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