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Can alcoholism, diabetes lead to spontaneous human combustion?

The recent case of three-month-old baby Rahul in a village in Tamil Nadu's Villupuram district who is suffering from a suspected case of what is known as spontaneous human combustion (SHC), has brought the spotlight back on a rare condition that is said to have afflicted only about 200 persons in the past 300 years.

Rahul, born to agricultural labourers Rajeswari and Karna, was taken to Government Kilpauk Medical College Hospital (KMC) with burn injuries last Thursday. The parents said that the three-month-boy burst into flames whenever he sweated and has gone up in flames four times in the last couple of months.

 Can alcoholism, diabetes lead to spontaneous human combustion?

The affected baby. IBN Live.

While the actual cause of this condition is not known, a reference to this condition has been made as far back as 1852 by Charles Dickens in 'Bleak House' where the character of junk-dealer Krook catches fire.

According to the History Channel, the first known account of spontaneous human combustion (SHC) was in 1641, with the most recent suspected cases of SHC was in 2010. In 2010, an Irish coroner ruled that spontaneous combustion caused the death of Michael Faherty, a 76-year-old whose badly burned body was discovered near a fireplace in a room with no fire damage. In the same year, 65-year-old Danny Vanzandt in Muldrow, Okla, was found dead by his family. His charred body was found inside his home, but nothing else around him was burnt.

Doctors have not found any cure for this condition except treating it like a normal case of burns, a big reason being that science has not yet been able to ascertain what may be the definitive reason for this condition. However, there are various theories to why SHC occurs.

Fuelled by the writings of popular writers of the time such as Herman Melville (Redburn, 1842) Captain Marryat (Jacob Faithful, 1834) and Nikolai Gogol (Dead Souls, 1849) and Charles Dickens in 1852, who write about tales of spontaneous human combustion, a common belief was that alcoholism was a cause of SHC.

There are several other theories for the condition.

Internal Vapors

The Paranormal Encyclopedia quotes biologist, David Pescod saying that that SHC could be caused by internal chemical reactions which build-up gases in the body. However, his theory is that flammable gases ignite when they mix with air. "Although very rare, the breakdown of phosphorous compounds in the body can generate gases in the gut which automatically ignite when they come into contact with air. When the gases escape from the body, they burst into flames," he was quoted as saying.

Health and Lifestyle

V. Jayaraman, former head of the plastic surgery department at Kilpauk Medical College Hospital (KMC), where Rahul is being treated told The Hindu that health and lifestyle factors could also be contributing to SHC. “Health and lifestyle factors such as smoking, not consuming adequate levels of water” could cause SHC, Dr. Jayaraman told the newspaper.

He also said he would not rule out a condition called ketosis, which occurs due to alcoholism or a low-carbohydrate diet, which as a result produces highly flammable acetone, which could lead to the condition.

A recent hypothesis by British biologist Brian J. Ford, said that a build-up of acetone in the body (which can result from alcoholism, diabetes or a specific kind of diet) can lead to spontaneous combustion. Ford wrote about his experiments in the magazine New Scientist on August 28 2012.

"If the body’s cells are starved (which can occur during chronic illness and even during a workout at the gym), acetyl-CoA in the liver is converted into acetoacetate, which can decarboxylate into acetone. And acetone is highly flammable," Ford wrote.

External Accelerators

Biologist, Dr. Mark Benecke quoted in the Paranormal Encyclopedia has said, "Just because an external source of ignition isn't found at the scene, it doesn't mean there wasn't one."

Endorsing this view, Dr. R. Narayan Babu, head of pediatrics at Kilpauk Medical College, where baby Rahul is admitted, told Deccan Chronicle that it is important to keep the baby away from inflammable objects. "The relatives or parents have to always keep an eye on the baby. Matchsticks, crackers or anything that can catch fire should not be kept near him," he said.

Paranormal Encyclopedia also states that according to Kirk's Fire Investigation, a standard text used in fire forensic work, exterior sources such as furnishings, bedding, and carpets are always involved in cases of alleged spontaneous human combustion. It argues that the fat of a burning body can act in similar manner to an oil lamp or candle. This "wick effect" is a theory endorsed by many SHC researchers.

There are, however, many scientists don't buy into the SHC theory.

According to History website, "Believers point to the fact that the human body has to reach a temperature of roughly 3,000 degrees in order to be reduced to ashes. Unless SHC were a genuine factor, it seems impossible that furniture would not burn as well."

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Updated Date: Aug 14, 2013 13:33:35 IST

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