Sunday, December 19, 2010

Pardon Me While I Burst...

I remember the first time I heard about spontaneous human combustion was in the early 2000s by way of a song that I still really like to this day. The song is called, "Pardon Me" by Incubus. Remember them? They were super popular in the 90s and early 2000s. I had the privilege of seeing them (front row) in 2002 when they came here to El Paso. I actually got to talk to the singer, as well. Anyway, believe it or not that's when I found out what spontaneous human combustion was. I hadn't heard about it before then. Although, when I was little and saw, "This Is Spinal Tap" (one of my favorite movies) and there was that scene, I had no idea that was called SHC. Silly, right?

Pardon Me - Incubus music video

I memorized this song back then! I thought it was genius and I still think it is (I don't care what you say!). The lyrics really are amazing.

This Is Spinal Tap video clips


WARNING: Some pictures below this are only a tiny bit grotesque.


Homeless Man, 1967 ||

Mary Reeser, 1951 ||


Accprding to Wikipedia, there are only 200 worldwide cited cases of Spontaneous Human Combustion, or SHC. 

There are several hypotheses on how SHC happens, according to Wikipedia:

  • SHC victims are sometimes described as lonely people who fall into a trance immediately before their incineration. Heymer suggests that a psychosomatic process in such emotionally-distressed people can trigger off a chain reaction by reacting nitrogen within the body and setting off a chain reaction of mitochondrial explosions. This hypothesis has been criticized on the basis that Heymer "seems to be under the illusion that nitrogen exist as gases in the blood and are thus vulnerable to ignition, which is, in fact, not the case." (Mitochondria are organelles found within cells.) The hypothesis also fails to take into account the fact that nitrogen is an inert, non-flammable gas.
  • Another hypothesis suggests high-energy particles or gamma rays coupled with susceptibilities in the potential victim (e.g. increased alcohol in the blood) triggers the initial reaction. This process may use no external oxygen to spread throughout the body, since it may not be an oxidation-reduction reaction. However, no reaction mechanism has been proposed, nor has a source for the high-energy particles.
  • The victim is an alcoholic and has been smoking while drinking or shortly after drinking a strong spirit. There are claims that this raises the blood alcohol level to a point where it ignites; however, this theory is implausible, since ethanol typically burns only if the concentration is greater than about 23%, whereas a fatally toxic level is about 1%. However, this does introduce the probability that the victim will fall asleep while holding a lit cigarette.
  • A suggested possibility is that both clothing and the person are caused to burn by a discharge of static electricity. A person walking across a carpet can build up sufficient charge and voltage to create a spark. It is unlikely that this could start a clothing fire, as although the voltage can be high (several thousand volts), the stored energy is very low (typically less than a joule). This theory is reinforced by records that show there has never been a recorded case of a naked SHC victim.
  • One hypothesis for SHC takes into account the internal combustion engine of the higher living organisms called mitochondria. Mitochondria are the powerhouses of the body and sites of highly active energy packet production using oxidative phosphorylation mechanism. Uncoupling of the metabolic processes in mitochondria from its energy production results in generation of large amounts of heat. This heat production is different from fever which is an inflammatory response to infection. Mitochondria are especially abundant in the skeletal muscle cells that require high energy output for their function. Since skeletal muscles constitute a major portion of the body, they harbor an enormous number of energy producing mitochondria. Under stress and certain extreme physiological conditions, the hyperactivity of energy producing mechanism of the body may exceed the conservation or utilization. Available body fat may also serve as additional fuel for combustion. This hypothesis still requires rigorous laboratory testing.
Here's the rest of the Wikipedia Article. There's a lot of other great information.

There are also cases of people surviving SHC. As you'll see in this short YouTube video.


And this is a video from a TV series starring a member of Iron Maiden who takes an investigative look into SHC. Here's part one.


Of course, there is nothing beautiful about people dying from SHC. Though, like Brandon from Incubus once thought and of course the beauty of an all-consuming fire in general: ...if only upon spontaneously bursting into flames could one rise from the ashes in a magical and magnificent rebirth.


With warm regards,

Christina Pietrowski.  

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