Professor’s breakthrough on human combustion theory
Posted by Xeno on August 23, 2012
A Cambridge professor has tackled the issue of spontaneous combustion – using belly pork.
Prof Brian J Ford is a research biologist and author of more than 30 books, most about cell biology and microscopy but he has turned his attention to the mechanisms behind why people ‘explode’.
He said in an article in New Scientist: “One minute they may be relaxing in a chair, the next they erupt into a fireball.
“Jets of blue fire shoot from their bodies like flames from a blowtorch, and within half an hour they are reduced to a pile of ash.
“Typically, the legs remain unscathed sticking out grotesquely from the smoking cinders. Nearby objects – a pile of newspapers on the armrest, for example – are untouched.”
The first record of spontaneous combustion dates back to 1641 when Danish doctor and mathematician Thomas Bartholin described the death of Polonus Vorstius – who drank wine at home in Milan, Italy, one evening in 1470 before bursting into flames.
Since then more reports of spontaneous combustion have been filed and linked to alcoholism – though the link was later disproved.
The most recent case was 76-year-old Michael Faherty who died on December 22, 2010. West Galway coroner Ciaran McLoughlin recorded the cause of death as spontaneous human combustion.
Prof Ford wanted to disprove the alcoholism theory and also something called the ‘wick effect’ suggested by London coroner Gavin Thurston in 1961.
Thurston had described how human fat burns at about 250c, but if melted it will combust on a wick – such as clothes or other material – at room temperatures.
He wrote: “I felt it was time to test the realities, so we marinated pork abdominal tissue in ethanol for a week.
“Even when cloaked in gauze moistened with alcohol, it would not burn.
“Alcohol is not normally present in our tissues, but there is one flammable constituent in the body that can greatly increase in concentration.”
The body creates acetone, which is highly flammable.
He added: “A range of conditions can produce ketosis, in which acetone is formed, including alcoholism, fat-free dieting, diabetes and even teething.
“So we marinated pork tissue in acetone, rather than ethanol.
“This was used to make scale models of humans, which we clothed and set alight.
“They burned to ash within half an hour.
“For the first time a feasible cause of human combustion has been experimentally demonstrated.”
The cue comes from the coroner’s account of Michael Faherty, who reported that the dead man had been diabetic. Many of the victims of SGC have been obese, and obesity can trigger Type 2 diabetes. The disordered metabolism results in ketone bodies, like acetone; indeed the tell-tale odour on the breath is often indicative of the disorder… It is a highly inflammable gas: as little as 2.6% in air can explode and its flashpoint is -17.8 degrees C. It can also cause flashback, where a trail of methane can lead ignition back to the source. Acetone is miscible with lipids and could surely render body fat – itself combustible – into a highly flammable compound.
In my view, this offers the perfect explanation. A patient experiences ketosis; acetone and its allies form a reserve in teh fatty tissues of the body and collect in gaseous form under the clothing; the patient is thus potentially inflammable. A static spark from fabric or combing the hair could set off fierce combustion. The energy required to trigger an explosion of gaseous hydrocarbons is as little as 0.02mJ, which falls below the threshold of human perception, whereas static sparks from clothing can produce a painful jolt.
The reported cases support my proposal perfectly. Many of the victims have high levels of body fat, which provide the fuel depot and the likelihood of ketosis. The relatively fat-free extremities often survive the conflagration relatively intact, likewise the heart and intestines. The areas that are consumed are centred around the abdomen, which is where primary fat deposits accumulate. …
Don’t want to combust? Avoid ketosis. Here are some tips.
Ketosis occurs when the body does not have enough carbohydrate to use for energy. Your body uses carbohydrates to make blood glucose which it then converts to a fuel called ATP. When you do not have enough sugar in your blood, or your body is unable to use the sugar, it rapidly breaks down fats, which produces waste products called ketones. If these ketones build up in your body it leads to a condition called ketosis or ketoacidosis. Symptoms of ketosis include nausea, loss of appetite and dizziness as well as breath that smells like rotting fruit. Ketosis is common in type 1 diabetics and people on low-carb or ultra-low-calorie diets.
Avoid low-carb and ultra-low-calorie, diets.
Eat when you are hungry and do not skip meals.
Consume enough calories to support your bodily functions.
Keep carbohydrates in your diet. – Consume “slow-burning” or low-glycemic carbohydrates such as whole grains, leafy vegetables and fresh fruits instead of juices and beans to prevent sudden blood sugar spikes.