Forensic scientists explain how spontaneous human combustion is a myth - the wick effect explained
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Myths abound when it comes to the phenomenon of Spontaneous human combustion. What causes people to just erupt into a ball of flames has caused much speculation throughout history, with macabre theories from paraffin-laced body products, through to them being an act of god.
The most recent occurrence of spontaneous human combustion occurred in 2010, when a 76 year old Irishman burned to death on his living room floor, leaving the corner to conclude “spontaneous human combustion” as the cause of death after a lengthy post-mortem. Even Charles Dickens used the concept in his 1853 work Bleak House, with the character Krook succumbing to the phenomenon.
But one pathologist at Adelaide University has stated that there is a scientific explanation for it all. “The reality is that people combust — but not spontaneously,” Roger Byard explains, “Yes, people’s bodies burn, but there’s absolutely no proof that it occurs as a spontaneous combustion. Practically every account has involved an external source of flame - the most common culprits are lit cigarettes, lamps, or candles.”
The most common scientific explanation for “spontaneous” human combustion is the idea of the “wick effect” principle, which suggests humans can act like candles. The wick effect theory suggests fat acts as a fuel source, and a human body is kept aflame through its own fat after being ignited. Blankets and clothing, meanwhile, act like a candle wick.
“You can picture people wrapped in blankets, drinking spirits — and spilling the spirits, which basically act like an accelerant with petrol or gasoline," Byard said. "What happens is they drop a cigarette into this massive pool of alcohol, which then ignites and just burns very slowly. We know that fat can actually burn at very low temperatures."