Burn baby burn: human spontaneous combustion explained

Human spontaneous combustion is sometimes classed alongside water divination – a myth that is strongly held.

Yet, this week’s New Scientist (currently only available to subscribers), gives what looks like (to my unqualified eye) a good explanation by Brian J. Fordbased on

Remember: Spontaneous Human Combustion is a re...
Remember: Spontaneous Human Combustion is a real threat. (Confucius) (Photo credit: Sim Dawdler)

his recent paper in The Microscope.

The extract for that says:

Last November, a 42-year-old man was standing outside a record store in Sweden, apparently waiting for someone. Suddenly fire appeared from his clothing and he burst into flames. He blazed from within and formed into a fireball as he fell to the ground. The man, who remains anonymous, narrowly escaped with his life. It was an astonishing and ghoulish episode but it wasn’t the first. There have been a number of reports of people catching fire, and most of them are almost completely destroyed in the conflagration. In the space of minutes, people have been consumed by fire, and all that remains is a heap of ash from which the legs protrude. It is a horrifying spectacle, which has been written about for centuries.

And not only is Ford convinced of the scientific validity of the idea of spontaneous human combustion – he’s also convinced it’s nothing to do with the standard explanation – that heavy drinkers and alcoholics burn after they have pickled their flesh in alcohol. He soaked flesh in alcohol and showed that it would not burn.

He also rejects the ‘wick’ theory: that human clothing acts like a candle wick with liquified human fat.

Instead his explanation is that acetone – a highly flammable chemical which is produced in ketosis when the body’s cells are starved of food (excessive dieting, alcoholism, diabetes, over doing it in the gym or teething can all cause this) is the cause of spontaneous combustion.

When he burnt pork flesh marinated in acetone – made up to model clothed humans – burning with the characteristic pattern of human spontaneous combustion was seen: ‘a pile of smoking cinders with protruding limbs’.

People with ketosis may already be seriously ill and the risk of spontaneous combustion is low: Ford estimates about 120 cases being recorded in all human history. But if you want lower the risk then stop smoking (yet another reason to do that!) and avoid wearing synthetic fibres on dry days.

4 thoughts on “Burn baby burn: human spontaneous combustion explained

  1. It it’s well known that manure can be burned as fuel. It is equally well known that politicians are full of it. The real question it’s not whether spontaneous human combustion exists but rather why we don’t see mass conflagrations at party conventions.

    1. Not enough fabric to reach critical mass? The designers are full of, um, fuel, but there aren’t that many of them present. The models aren’t full of anything.

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