This week’s question was asked by a curious nephew.

QUESTION: Can people just burst into flames?

ANSWER: A lot of people may think humans spontaneously combust, but scientists aren’t convinced. A human can’t burst into flame from a chemical reaction within. Nonetheless, there are persistent stories, well over a hundred accounts, of finding human remains that appear to have spontaneously burst into flames.

Yes, spontaneous combustion does occur. Common examples are rags soaked with gasoline, kerosene, paint thinner, varnish or car engine cleaners that get tossed into a pile or trash can. The liquid evaporates and the surrounding air is filled with fumes that are easily combustible. All it takes is some spark or sun beating down on them for a fire to break out.

Another kind of spontaneous combustion is the so-called “grain dust” explosion. These occur around grain elevators, sawmills, and ships being loaded with fertilizer. The air gets filled with microscopic pieces of grain, wood or powder. Billions of tiny particles provide a huge surface area for burning. Any little spark and ka-boom!!

Most, if not all, of these cases of human flambe were people who were discovered already dead. In other words, they weren’t sitting there in the easy chair watching the Packers game and all of a sudden turned into a human torch.

All the cases have a familiar pattern. The victim is almost completely consumed. The coroner discovers a sweet, smoky smell in the room. The extremities often remain intact. The head and torso are burned and charred beyond recognition. The room around the person exhibits little or no sign of any fire.

One of the more common theories is that the fire is caused by methane gas build up in the intestines. Proteins in the body act as catalysts to induce and speed up chemical reactions that ignite the methane gas. It must be a gruesome sight!

And yet, there are no reported cases of cows spontaneously bursting into flames. Cows produce far more methane than people.

Another more up-to-date theory proposes the wick effect. A candle works by having a burning wick on the inside surrounded by wax made of flammable fatty acids. The wax keeps the candle burning.

The wick effect is basically an inside-out candle. In the human body, the body fat acts as the flammable material, and the victim’s clothes act as the wick. As the fat melts from the heat, it soaks into the clothing and acts as a wax-like substance to keep the wick burning slowly. This theory jives with the fact that the victim’s body is destroyed, and yet the extremities are hardly touched and the furnishings in the room do not catch on fire.

There is no conclusive proof of spontaneous human combustion. There is, however, much anecdotal evidence. Most scientists say there are likely explanations. Many of the cases have been smokers who fell asleep with a lit cigarette or pipe. A number were under the influence of alcohol and some have diseases that restricted their movement. Some were fires set by criminals to cover up their dastardly deeds.

In 1852, Charles Dickens wrote a novel called Bleak House. One of his characters in the book, an alcoholic by the name of Krook, is done away with by spontaneous human combustion. This story was used by prohibitionists to get the Eighteenth Amendment passed that went into effect in early 1919. The Eighteenth Amendment banned the making, transporting and sale of alcoholic beverages.

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Send questions and comments to: Larry Scheckel is a retired Tomah High School physics teacher.


Tomah Journal editor

Steve Rundio is editor of the Tomah Journal. Contact him at 608-374-7785.

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