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Spontaneous combustion

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Spontaneous combustion is a chemical reaction in which a material catches on fire and burns without the help of an external source. Normally occurring due to a process known as oxidation, the material becomes heated, and if contained in an enclosed space, can burst into flames. While this process does not occur all that often, the danger is very real. Simple, everyday items, such as rags used in painting, can spontaneously combust if the right conditions exist.

How it happens

One of many spontaneously combustible materials.

In ordinary combustion, a material is heated to its point of ignition. At this point, the material catches on fire and begins to burn. In spontaneous combustion, however, the material or substance bursts into flame without any outside stimuli acting upon it. Many substances go through a process of slow oxidation which, like burning, releases heat from the substance. If, during this process, the heat is unable to escape, then the temperature of that substance rises until it reaches the point of ignition. This is what causes the substance to then burst into flames.[1]

Combustible materials

Most materials on Earth are combustible, save a few exceptions. Whether they are spontaneously combustible or not, however, depends on a variety of factors. Many of the materials that are reported as being spontaneously combustible have a relatively low point of ignition. Some of the most commonly reported materials include:

Haystacks: bacterial fermentation

Compost piles: bacterial fermentation

Unprocessed cotton: bacterial fermentation

Linseed oil: when in a partially confined space

Coal: when exposed to oxygen

Pistachios: when stored in large quantities

Large piles of cow manure: cases of extreme heat

Linen: when it has come in contact with certain bacteria, and then stored so the heat cannot escape

Some trees: those with such a large radius that they cannot transfer heat from the center to the outside fast enough to keep up with the build up of heat. Over a couple days, the tree can spontaneously combust. [2] [3]


While large scale cases of spontaneous combustion are not extremely common, there have been several reported incidents, some very recent.

  • One day in June of 1933, The Atlantic Pyroxylin Waste Company exploded. The fire caused at least two explosions, which resulted in the deaths of at least 9 people, and the injuring of an approximate 180 people in addition. The cause of the explosion was attributed to spontaneous combustion of the oily pyroxylin scraps contained within the plant.[4][5]
  • One day in November of 2010, in Iowa City, Iowa, a fire in a restaurant called Takanami was attributed to spontaneous combustion after a linen basket of kitchen towels was discovered in the aftermath of the blaze.[6]
  • On May 16th, 2011, a large section of the Dalian Forest Zoo in China caught on fire and burned down. The fire was caused and attributed to spontaneous combustion.[7]

Spontaneous human combustion

The remains of Dr. Bentley, an alleged case of spontaneous human combustion.

Spontaneous human combustion is a very controversial subject. There have been approximately 200 reported cases over the last several hundred years, but both scientists and civilians alike are slow to accept this phenomenon. Most of the victims of spontaneous human combustion, or SHC, have reportedly been found burned beyond recognition. In several cases, the extremities of the bodies were left untouched, with the torso and head reduced to ashes. Among the reported cases of SHC, all the victims have been almost completely consumed by the intense heat and flames, and are usually found in their homes. In some cases, the coroners detected a sweet, smoky smell in the room.

When forced to accept cases of SHC, skeptics are quick to bring up the wick effect. The wick effect states that the victim's body acts like a candle, slowly burning and melting until the body is utterly consumed. However, this theory states that the victim has to burn for hours on end, and the reported cases of SHC all supposedly occurred within a few minutes. Despite all of the cases, however, people are still reluctant to accept SHC, and scientists have yet to find a cause for it.[8][9][10]


  1. spontaneous combustion The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition,, 2008.
  2. Spontaneous combustion Unknown author,, last modified April 29th, 2011.
  3. SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION HAZARDS Unknown author, HY-TECH, Accessed May 4th, 2011.
  4. Cox, Porch, and Wetzel. Chemistry for Christian Schools. South Carolina: Bob Jones University Press, 2000. (p.355).
  5. CATASTROPHE Unknown author, Times, June 19th, 1933.
  6. Restaurant fire Clark Cahill, Eastern Iowa News Now, November 24th, 2010.
  7. Forest Fire Unknown author, China News, May 16th, 2011.
  8. How human combustion works Unknown author,, Accessed May 18th, 2010.
  9. Spontaneous Human Combustion Unknown author, Crystalinks, Accessed May 18th, 2010.
  10. Spontaneous Human Combustion Unknown author, Skeptic's Dictionary, last updated December 9th, 2010.

Additional Information