Earlier this month a 4-month-old Indian boy was admitted to a hospital with burns on his chest, head and abdomen. Though police and medical suspicions first turned to parental abuse or neglect in the child's injuries, the baby's mother offered a strange explanation.
She claimed that Rahul had previously been injured by a mysterious phenomena called spontaneous human combustion (SHC), in which people are said to suddenly and inexplicably burst into flames.
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She claimed that there was nothing flammable near him when he was burned and suggested that there may be something special or unique about the boy's body chemistry that makes him prone to these strange attacks.
According to R. Jayachandran, a professor in the department of pediatrics at Kilpauk Medical College Hospital in Chennai, "The mother told us that the baby has suffered four episodes of such spontaneous fire and suffered burn injuries. The last episode was a month back."
His parents claimed that Rahul first caught fire when he was nine days old. There is surely something strange going on with this child - but what?
Spontaneous Human Combustion?
The idea that people can suddenly burst into flames for no apparent reason has been around for over a century; it even happened to a character in the 1853 Dickens novel "Bleak House."
Some sources claim that hundreds, or even thousands, of spontaneous combustion cases have been reported throughout history, though only about a dozen cases have been investigated.
There are many reasons to be skeptical that random people can spontaneously combust. Not only is there no plausible medical or physiological mechanism by which a person could generate enough heat to catch fire, but there exists no film or video evidence of it ever occurring.
With few exceptions, SHC cases follow a familiar pattern upon close investigation: elderly, young, or infirm people left alone in or near flammable materials and sources of ignition.
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Despite a lack of credible evidence for the existence of SHC, belief in the phenomenon is widespread, and every few years a suspected case makes the news. In fact in 2011 an Irish coroner even officially listed it as a cause of death in the case of a 76-year-old man found dead lying near an open fire.
Police, understandably, take a dim view of supernatural or paranormal "explanations" for real-life injuries and crimes. Injuries to anyone - and especially children - blamed on ghosts should of course be treated with extreme skepticism; other than in scary movies and reality TV ghost shows, real injuries are caused by real people. If a child goes missing investigators assume abductions by family members, not aliens or Bigfoot.
In the case of the Indian toddler, follow-up tests found nothing unusual about Rahul.
"Over a dozen tests have been performed on the baby to check the vital functions and according to doctors the reports so far are normal," according to a report from ZNews India. Though tests on the child turned up nothing unusual, investigators did locate a hidden source of flammable material in the huts where the family lived.
As a news story in "The Hindu" noted, "the baby's mother hails from Nedumozhiyanur which was in the news in 2004 after residents there complained their houses spontaneously burst into flames. Investigations revealed phosphorus stuffed in wet cow dung had been placed in the huts. When the dung dried up, phosphorus, which has a low ignition point, lit up, setting the huts on fire."
Whether this is the true cause of the child's burns, or simply parental neglect or abuse, the least likely explanation is that little Rahul spontaneously combusted. With careful medical treatment including an antibiotics regimen, the boy should recover and hopefully be removed from whatever conditions caused his burns in the first place.