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The Spontenous Human Combustion Fallacy

Spontaneous human combustion is a phenomenon that has recieved a lot of attention in the media. Here Tim Thompson discusses what actually happens.
© Tim Thompson

Spontaneous Human Combustion

People have long been afraid of suddenly bursting into flames. In fact, as recently as 2011, a man who died in Ireland was recorded as dying of Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) by the local coroner.

However, despite the fear, there really is nothing to worry about. People do not spontaneously combust (at all. Ever!) despite continued and inaccurate statements to the contrary. But there is a process which causes people to be burned into small fragments leaving their lower arms and legs untouched. This process has been used incorrectly as evidence of Spontaneous Human Combustion.

The Wick Effect

The cause of the fire will vary from case to case, and may include an electric heater or a discarded cigarette. For some reason the victim does not try to stop the fire on them, and a likely reason may be that the person has died already due to natural causes. A low intensity fire spreads across the body, and causes the body fats to melt. The melting fats seep into the victim’s clothing making a sort of inside-out candle. The body is the fuel on the inside surrounded by the clothing which acts as the wick – hence the name. The slow burn causes the body to disintegrate into small fragments. This does not usually happen with burning, but the older age of the usual victims can mean that the bones are naturally weaker and more porous, and so are more easily destroyed. The fire spreads across the body, fueled by the melting fat. Until it reaches the elbows and knees, where there is not enough fat to maintain the fire, and so the damage does not continue and these limbs are left relatively undamaged.

The relatively low intensity of the fire means that the wider room is not usually affected. Hence all that remains is a mysteriously burned body, with undamaged limbs left next to the otherwise burned victim.

© Tim Thompson
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