Aug 15 2013

Spontaneous Baby Combustion

News reports are coming out of India of a “rare medical case” involving a newborn infant who apparently spontaneously bursts into flames. This has occurred four times so far. The baby is now in the hospital being treated for these burns.

The International Business Times, with a headline declaring a “mystery baby,” reports:

Rahul, a native of Tindivanam, Tamil Nadu was admitted to Kilpauk Medical College and Hospital on Thursday for burns reportedly caused by a rare medical phenomenon known as Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) wherein a person catches fire due to emission of inflammable substances through the body.

They do contain some token skepticism, but then go on to discuss the “controversy” over SHC and the various theories about how it might occur.  The earliest reports of this case did not even contain the token skepticism, which seems to have crept into the later reports.

Some of the doctors treating the baby seem to take the SHC theory as a given – a rare medical condition. They are seeking to explain how a baby can spontaneously burst into flame. The Daily Mail quotes one doctor as saying.

‘We will carry out tests to find out the kind of gases generated by the baby.’

I think she meant “if” the baby is generating gas. Others speculate that the baby has inflammable sweat. These are nothing but wild speculations, but they are presented as serious medical hypotheses, while SHC is presented as a real medical condition.

The media has apparently been waiting for medical tests that they somehow felt might shed light on the case. As far as I can tell, these were nothing but routine blood tests, perhaps with some specific tests thrown in, to see if there was anything unusual. Unsurprisingly, these tests came back normal. 

At least some of the doctors at the hospital where the baby is being treated understand that SHC is a “hoax theory,” as they are calling it. That is true enough. I have written about SHC previously – there are no confirmed cases and no plausibility to the phenomenon. A typical alleged case involves an infirm overweight individual with an obvious external source of flame, such as a lit cigarette. This is one of those cases when a non-mystery is treated as if it is a mystery and then “explained” with wild pseudoscientific speculation.

Given that the SHC explanation is nonsensical, the most likely (unfortunately) explanation remaining is child abuse. There are apparently no other signs of child abuse other than the burns in this case. However, there is one standard and accepted test for child abuse presenting as an alleged medical condition – removal from the caregivers and observation.

When a child is becoming repeatedly ill or injured without explanation, the child is kept under observation in a hospital setting. If the child gets better, or there are no further incidents, that supports the hypothesis of child abuse. This doesn’t prove it, but it is consistent with abuse and highly suspicious.

My recommendation for the doctors of little Rahul is to keep the boy in the hospital for a long time, until he is fully recovered. His parents claim that he has had four episodes of SHC in 2.5 months. so keep him for a couple months in the hospital. If there are no further episodes, perhaps the child needs to go to foster care.

The only other possibility is that the child is catching fire because of some source of flame in his room. That should be investigated as well, and should be easy to rule out.

This is a sad case, but is yet another example of how pseudoscience can make a bad situation much worse. Science and reason at least has the opportunity of doing the right thing.

It’s also another example of a massive media fail. Articles range from totally credulous to token skepticism. I have not even seen false balance yet, although some are inching in that direction. I have not seen any appropriately skeptical mainstream media treatment. That is a systemic problem with mainstream news.

11 responses so far

11 Responses to “Spontaneous Baby Combustion”

  1. BillyJoe7on 15 Aug 2013 at 8:36 am

    “The child was admitted to the intensive care unit in Chennai, India with 10 degree burns”

    I suppose they will have to surgically excise the charred muscle and bone,
    Either that or they meant that he suffered burns to 10 percent of his body.

  2. Steven Novellaon 15 Aug 2013 at 9:12 am

    yeah – I saw that. Don’t know what “10 degree” burns are. I looked it up – nothing. (except a funny urban dictionary definition).

    It’s not 10% by the pictures, so that is not accurate.

    So – not sure if it is a different system used in India, or if it is just more horrible reporting.

  3. Michael Bradyon 15 Aug 2013 at 11:02 am


    If the hospital thinks child abuse is a “rare medical case” they ought to add a criminal investigator to the treatment team.

  4. worlebirdon 15 Aug 2013 at 12:53 pm

    Regarding the “10 degree burns”, I suspect this is a editorial mistake made as the result of a computer issue. I’m guessing what the writer meant was “1st degree burns”, where the “st” in “1st” is represented by a special single character (many word processors will do this). However, if the editor’s computer (or some other computer along the chain to publishing on the web) wasn’t set up correctly to display these special characters, the “st” would instead appear as a rectangular box. An uninformed editor could easily think this looked like a zero, and make the appropriate “correction”.

    Of course, I could be giving them too much credit.

  5. locutusbrgon 15 Aug 2013 at 1:57 pm

    As a nurse that has a decade of triage experience in the emergency room in the US. Unexplained burns in a pre-ambulatory infant is considered abuse until significant evidence is produced to explain the burns. Any other discussion is like starting with a pedestrian accident and looking for a meteorite. Even a meteorite is more plausible than SHC. If this family has 10 kids from 20 to newborn with no history of burns and a Pediatrician that can verify that then you start looking for bedding issues and heat sources.
    This level of reporting is insulting. What next for a follow up story? “Plus the mother falls down the stairs breaking her arm regularly due to telekinetic attack”

  6. norrisLon 15 Aug 2013 at 6:40 pm

    India appears from the outside to be very much in love with homeopathy. The unbelievable gullibility required to believe in homeopathy apparently extends to belief in spontaneous baby combustion.


  7. ConspicuousCarlon 15 Aug 2013 at 8:34 pm

    a buildup of acetone in the body

    Hmmm, seems like there might be a problem with that theory.

    Where’s our man Sanal? This might be a good case for him to keep track of if he isn’t still busy being chased across the globe by Catholics with torches.

  8. Dianeon 15 Aug 2013 at 11:50 pm

    Having lived in a town on the Indian border with a large Indian population, my guess is that this is less a matter of gullibility and more a matter of lack of awareness of child abuse. People just don’t believe that anyone is capable of that kind of cruelty to a child. If they are aware of child abuse, they tend to perceive it as a “Western problem” which they fortunately don’t have in India. So in comparison, spontaneous combustion seems plausible.

  9. locutusbrgon 16 Aug 2013 at 12:25 am

    Certainly that is plausible for Indians. There is no shortage of US citizens refusing to believe in abuse as well. It does not excuse the Indian medical professionals, or the western media reporting.

  10. Kawarthajonon 16 Aug 2013 at 12:20 pm

    No, seriously, my daughter “spontaneously bursts into flames” at times. It is a real phenomenon! I’ve seen it with my own eyes. No, wait, she’s just having a temper tantrum, never mind.

    This was more likely a case of abuse, neglect or accidental injury that the parents were lying about. Burns on children are common injuries, especially around fires, hot liquids (i.e. boiling water or hot cooking oil, or even really hot bathtub water) and hot surfaces (i.e. radiators, ovens, heaters). I see these reports often, including when the parents lie about the injuries.

  11. chaos4zapon 16 Aug 2013 at 1:51 pm

    I think it was in Skeptical Inquirer that I read about the fallacy of “Misplaced Rationalization”. Basically, before you try and come up with a cause for an event that seems to be inexplicable (often, wild speculation), there must be some compelling reason to think that it’s inexplicable in the first place (can we say, process of elimination?). That someone can walk into a hospital with an infant covered in burns and, when asked what happened, they just shrug and say…..”uh….she just burst into flames…?” is astounding. That the medical professionals hear that and say “that’s odd, must have been SHC?” is mind-blowingly depressing (That’s my Friday Face-Palm). I should point out that there would seem to also be the possibility of attention seeking behavior by the parent(s), something like Munchausen by Proxy. I’m sure those cases are somewhat rare, but it’s still much higher on the plausibility list than SHC. I could just see self-professed SHC experts beating down the door to have a look (what do Ghost Hunters and SHC “experts” have in common? Thermal thinga-ma-giggy’s that produce potentially useful data for an implausible, incoherent, poorly defined and overall useless hypothesis). What’s the harm in non-sense beliefs? We can add the ability to so easily smoke-screen abuse to the list.

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