Like many mothers, Rajeshwari Karnan was delighted when she gave birth to a son. The 23-year-old farm labourer and her husband, Karnan Perumal, 26, already had a two-year-old daughter, but like many in the state of Tamil Nadu, they considered a boy a particular blessing.
So when Rahul arrived in May, they were especially delighted.
However, just over a week later, their joy turned to misery. One afternoon, says Rajeshwari, she was washing her daughter when she suddenly heard Rahul screaming from inside the hut. She ran towards him, but before she could get there, a neighbour shouted to her the words she will never forget: ‘Your baby is on fire!’
‘There was a flame on his belly and his right knee,’ Rajeshwari told the New York Times last week, ‘and my husband rushed with a towel to put it off [sic]. I got very scared.’
The couple immediately took their son to hospital, but the doctors were mystified.
Later, the parents returned home, hoping this bizarre and disturbing occurrence would not repeat itself.But it has done — three more times, according to the couple. The last incident took place one afternoon last month, with their little boy suffering first and second-degree burns. As a result, the family have now been forced to move from their village, due to their neighbours’ fears that the baby could cause a serious fire.
This month, the couple took the child to be examined at a hospital in the city of Chennai, where the doctors are equally baffled.
Foul play appears to have been ruled out, with Karnan Perumal saying that he and his wife would never be ‘crazy [enough] to burn our own baby’.
Some people are saying the flames must be the work of a deity, while others suspect the use of combustible phosphorous in the materials used to build the couple’s home. But the doctors are now considering whether baby Rahul is a victim of one of the strangest and most mysterious of phenomena said to affect the body — spontaneous human combustion.
‘We are in a dilemma and haven’t come to any conclusion,’ says Dr Narayan Babu. ‘The parents have held that the baby burned instantaneously without any provocation. We are carrying out numerous tests. We are not saying it is SHC (spontaneous human combustion) until all the investigations are complete.’
Is it really possible for a baby to burst suddenly into flames? And if so, how on earth does it happen — and could other infants elsewhere in the world fall victim to the same extraordinary circumstances?
Although spontaneous combustion has been written about for centuries, there are many who are sceptical about its existence. All too often, when presented with the grisly image of a pile of human ash with only the legs remaining, the doubters will insist that the victim probably died from falling asleep with a cigarette, or was sitting too near a fire.
Such explanations may seem reasonable, but they ignore the fact that human bodies are extremely hard to burn. We are composed largely of water. And the bits of us that aren’t damp — especially our bones — require a huge and sustained amount of heat to reduce to ash.
Crematoriums use at least 30 cubic metres of gas, along with 600 cubic metres of pre-heated air, to incinerate a corpse. If it only required a small log fire or a cigarette to burn a body, then such places would be put out of business.
In fact, it is more absurd to suggest these mysterious fires are caused by an external heat source rather than some as-yet- unexplained bodily function.
Human combustion has been gaining acceptance. In 2010, a coroner in Galway in Ireland recorded it as the cause of death in the case of 76-year-old Michael Faherty, whose charred corpse had been found lying on the floor of his living-room.
So, if we acknowledge that the phenomenon does exist — how does it happen?
One of the first serious accounts of it appeared in the august journal Philosophical Transactions Of The Royal Society in 1745, which recorded how a 62-year-old Italian countess had gone to bed one night feeling ‘dull and heavy’. The next morning, all that was found in her bedroom was a pile of ash and her legs.
Many other cases followed, and by 1806, one scientist thought he had the answer. In An Essay On The Combustion Of Humans, Pierre Lair suggested that the problem was the demon drink, and he subtitled his article, Products Of The Abuse Of Spirituous Liquors.
The explanation that alcohol was to blame quickly caught on, especially among moralists who were against the hard stuff. In 1832, a popular Victorian magazine claimed all those who suddenly burst into flames were ‘habitually drunken’.
The notion was so widespread that when Charles Dickens included an episode of spontaneous human combustion in his 1852 novel Bleak House, the victim — the villainous Mr Krook — was said to be ‘continual in liquor’.
The idea that an excess of booze can make the body more flammable seems, superficially, to make sense. Alcohol is flammable, so doesn’t it follow that drunkards make good kindling?
Well, no. The science simply doesn’t bear it out. Even as far back as the time of Bleak House, a scientist called J. von Liebig tried setting light to human anatomical specimens soaked in alcohol, and they simply wouldn’t burn. In another series of grisly experiments, he even injected ethanol into rats and tried to set light to them, but they failed even to smoulder.
Throughout the last century, as cases of spontaneous human combustion became more widely reported and photographed, new theories were advanced. The one that gained the most traction was the so-called ‘wick effect’, which stated that the victims’ clothes, if ignited, could start to melt the body’s fat, and that the body would slowly burn up at a relatively low temperature, like a candle.
Experiments seemed to suggest that the ‘wick effect’ might indeed be an explanation. However, it neglected two important points. How did the fires start in the first place? And how did the bones burn?
Disposing of bones is immensely difficult. In one experiment to prove the ‘wick effect’, some bone was placed in a furnace at 500c for eight hours, and yet it remained intact.
In cases of human combustion, everything is reduced to ash, often except for the odd foot or lower leg. The ‘wick effect’ simply cannot generate enough heat completely to incinerate the body.
So if it is not smouldering cigarette ends, alcohol, or the wick effect, how does spontaneous combustion take place? British research biologist Brian J. Ford has shed new light on the mystery. In two recent articles, one of which appeared in the New Scientist, Professor Ford explains that spontaneous human combustion may be caused by a chemical called acetone that is produced naturally in the body.
Many women will recognise the smell of acetone, because it is often used as a solvent in nail-varnish removers. In healthy humans, acetone is normally disposed of through urine, but when people suffer from certain illnesses, acetone levels can build up in the body, and can even be smelled on the breath — which is another way in which the chemical leaves us.
Indeed, the subject has been discussed on the popular website Mumsnet, where one poster wrote that her young daughter had ‘acetone breath’, and that ‘apparently children have higher than normal acetone levels’.
Professor Ford has noted that many of the people who have combusted spontaneously were unwell at the time, and as a result, may have developed a condition called ketosis, in which acetone in the body increases.
Ketosis can have a range of causes, including alcoholism, diabetes, a high-fat diet, and even, in babies, teething.
Furthermore, acetone infuses itself well into human fat. And — this is crucial — it is also extremely flammable.
Unable to find a human volunteer to test his theory that a build-up of acetone causes spontaneous human combustion, Professor Ford made a scale model, as it were, from pieces of pork — the animal flesh that most closely approximates ours.
The ‘pork puppet’ was marinated in acetone, dressed in clothes, and placed in a chair. Professor Ford then held up a gas lighter, and the result was dramatic. The ‘body’ burst into a fireball, and in under an hour, it had been completely consumed by flames.
In fact, the acetone was so volatile, that even just a static spark from synthetic fabrics could have caused the conflagration.
All that was left — as is so often the case with spontaneous human combustion — were the legs, which Professor Ford suggests remain unburned because there is not enough fat in that part of the body to store the flammable acetone.
His theory certainly looks convincing — though last week the doctors in India released the test results on poor little Rahul. They showed that the levels of acetone in his blood were not high.
This may mean a number of things. It could be that Rahul’s acetone has now dropped, and that he is safe. Or it could mean that the high levels of acetone that can occur in babies are stored in the fat, and do not enter the blood stream — and thus do not show up in blood tests.
Or it is possible that Professor Ford’s theory — as plausible as it is — may just be plain wrong.
Whatever the explanation, Rahul’s parents are taking no chances. He sleeps with a bucket of water next to his cot.
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