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 so — 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?
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.
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.
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