Idiopathic Thermogenesis:

Potential Origin and Mechanism of Action

M. Sue Benford, Public Health Information Services

Abstract: The author posits a link among the various levels of human idiopathic thermogenesis (burning of unknown origin), which range from minor skin reddening to complete combustion of the body.   The theory proposes an underlying mechanism of action for these occurrences.

Keywords: toxic epidermal necrolysis, idiopathic, thermogenesis, spontaneous combustion, biological, ionizing radiation.


For centuries, medical practitioners have attempted to describe the etiology of idiopathic thermogenesis (burning) within the human body (1,2,3,4,5). This phenomenon of unknown origin ranges from simple localized erythema of the skin to complete carbonization of the human body (see Table 1 below). Although the first three levels of the continuum are well-known in the medical literature, the most rare and deadly of the internal burning phenomena, known in the popular media as Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC), has yet to be recognized as a bona fide medical condition. This article attempts to provide a compelling link between the various classifications of idiopathic thermogenesis by positing a joint theory of causation and mechanism of action.

Table 1

Classifications of Idiopathic Thermogenesis in the Body

(from least to most severe)

Erthema exsudativum multiforme majus (EEMM)

Skin detachment typical and/or atypical; involvement mostly on limbs

Stevens-Johnson Syndrome (SJS)

Skin detachment with atypical target lesions and/or purpuric mascules in wide dissemination

SJS/TEN overlap

Skin detachment between 10% and 30% of the body surface area with atypical target lesions and/or macules in wide dissemination

Toxic epidermal necrolysis (TEN) with maculae

Skin detachment >30% of the body surface area, atypical target lesions and/or macules

Toxic epidermal necrolysis (TEN) on large erythema

Skin detachment >10% of the body surface area without any targets or purpuric macules

Superhyperthermic carbonization (SHC)*

Deep burning of tissues and/or bones often resulting in complete carbonization of body; targets areas of greatest infirmity

Information on all but SHC provided by the Center for Documentation of Severe Skin Reactions;

* SHC information from Arnold LE. ABLAZE! The Mysterious Fires of Spontaneous Human Combustion. M. Evans Company, New York, 1995.


A matter of degrees

The least destructive of the cadre of idiopathic thermogenic conditions is called erythema multiforme (EM), which involves skin lesions less than 3 cm in diameter, less than 20% of body surface area, and minimal mucous membrane involvement. The cutaneous lesions are typically symmetric, and involve the extremities, with the dorsal hands and extensor aspects most commonly involved (6,7,8).

The next level of the burning has been termed the Stevens-Johnson syndrome (SJS). SJS involves similar skin lesions as EM but is much more severe with bullae development and includes at least two mucous membranes and fever. The majority of cases of erythema multiforme and SJS are between ages 20 and 40 with 20% of cases occurring in children and adolescents. The mortality of SJS is reported as 3 to 19%. Cases tend to cluster in the early spring and winter months (9,10,11).

A more invasive and proliferating burning is defined as Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis (TEN) and was first described by Lyell in 1956 (12). It is a rare condition with 1.2 cases per million per year (13) and is characterized by a diffuse erythematous rash that progresses to desquamation of a large part of the body surface area. TEN is a very serious condition with a mortality of 20% to 30%, even with rigorous treatment (14-18). The highest mortality rates occur in the elderly (19).

Although TEN is in the clinical continuum of EM and SJS, a biopsy will show complete separation of epidermis from the dermis, similar to a deep partial thickness burn. Often the inflammatory response is not limited to the skin and may include the mucous membranes of the mouth, genitals, eyes, and anus with widespread tissue destruction that may extend to the internal organs (20). Even with such defined parameters, there are often overlapping manifestations between syndromes resulting in multi-category classification.


The pathophysiology for idiopathic thermogenesis is not well understood, but it does appear to have a strong immunological basis (21-25) and is often considered an adverse drug reaction. Antibiotics, anticonvulsants and nonsteriodal anti-inflammatory drugs are the most commonly implicated causative agents (26,27). Age and total body surface area (TBSA) desquamated are the strongest prognosticators at the onset of TEN (28).

The list of other possible etiologies is extensive and includes systemic lupus erythematosus, histoplasmosis, pregnancy, malignancy, and external-beam radiation especially to the cranium (29-33). No one has been able to demonstrate conclusively the pathogenesis of these conditions.

Links between idiopathic thermogenesis and gamma radiation fluctuations

Multiple studies by Benford et al. have identified a statistically significant decrease in extremely high-frequency electromagnetic fields of ionizing radiation (gamma rays) during alternative healing (Polarity therapy) sessions with a trained practitioner and multiple subjects (34-36). During these experiments, external (between 2 and 6 inches from body) gamma radiation counts were recorded for the (1) background control values, (2) resting control values (subjects in supine position), (3) no treatment baseline control values (with a person standing alongside the subject), and (4) treatment values (while Polarity therapist's hands are gently placed on the subject) as shown in figure 1 below.

Figure 1

Figure 1 shows a subject receiving healing energy therapy while gamma radiation levels are being monitored.


During the initial preliminary tests, total counts were recorded in 100-second trials separately over the crown of the head, chest overlying the heart, abdomen, and pelvic regions using a NaI(TI) crystal scintillator that detected gamma radiation from approximately 100 KeV to 3 MeV. Later tests involved 300-second counts over the heart and pelvic regions only. The results demonstrated that gamma radiation levels markedly decreased during the therapy sessions of all subjects and at every body site tested regardless of which therapist performed the treatment. In many instances, the gamma counts fluctuated by thousands within the short time periods analyzed. T-tests were used to determine statistical significance with p-values ranging from p = 0.035 to p< 0.0001, in the 100-second trials, and p < 0.00001 in the 300-second trials.

One hypothesis suggests that the fluctuations may occur because of increased gamma ray absorption by the subject during bioenergetic treatments, resulting in the activation of specific cellular and molecular processes that are beneficial to the organism. Benford has hypothesized that this effect is similar to the therapeutic health effects seen in low-dose radiation experiments (37,38).

One participant (designated as "KF") in the Benford et al. alternative healing studies, involved a survivor of an unexplained idiopathic thermogenesis event later defined as partial SHC. She is one of the over 400 reported cases of SHC (39) and there are likely many more cases that have gone unreported or misreported (i.e. SHC could have occurred and started a fire but it was reported as a fire with the victim being incinerated). KF was tested for gamma fluctuations during a Polarity therapy session on May 8, 1998 at the Columbus Polarity Therapy Institute in Columbus, Ohio. She was one of ten test subjects who was monitored for 100-second count gamma fluctuations during Polarity therapy, a type of healing energy practice.

Two years prior to this date, in February of 1996, she experienced an explosion adjacent to her left shoulder blade which created a dark smoke that filled her kitchen. She reported feeling "something from the base of my back going up my back" (40). Her back remained hot and red for only fifteen minutes at which time her skin returned to normal. This event had an eyewitness and was later validated by physicians. At the time of the event, KF was on NorPaceŽ for a chronic heart arrhythmia and was taking prescription-strength potassium supplements. Her height and weight were reported as 5'2" and 112 pounds at the time of the incident with her weight increasing to 120 pounds at the time of testing. She was 39 years old at the time of the incident and 41 at the time of testing.

The results of KF's gamma radiation testing included the following comparisons with the group:

Table 2. 100-second Gamma Count Decreases (Background minus "Before" Therapy)KF compared to group average (n=10)































Table 3. 100-second Gamma Count Decreases (Background minus "During" Therapy)KF compared to group average (n=10)
































As is clearly seen in both tables 2 and 3, the decreases of gamma radiation for KF as compared to the rest of the group are significantly higher and reflect the maximum levels obtained during the study save one reading (see "before" abdominal reading). To explain the gamma decreases that were observed both before and even more dramatically, during alternative healing therapy, the author hypothesized that an alternative fuel source of ionizing radiation is being used by cells to complement existing food supplies via a process called "radiogenic metabolism," which was first described by cell biologist Dr. T.D. Luckey (41). This may arise from one of two mechanisms: absorption of external radiation or decreased emission of ionizing radiation from within the cells. When cells are incoherent, under stress, and/or dysfunctional, the need for these radiant energy sources increases, thus absorption and/or hoarding of energy increases and externally-monitored gamma counts decrease.

In addition, the Benford et al. gamma radiation studies may indicate a type of "self regulation" by the body; whereby, only the amount of radiogenic energy needed is absorbed/stored at any given time when applied under specified conditions. When the cells are ineffectively processing energy, as in certain dysfunctional states such as KF's heart arrhythmia, there may be an increased influx/decreased release from the alternative gamma radiation source.

During times of cellular stress, intracellular energy requirements increase as the cell strives to maintain metabolic equilibrium. The Benford et al. experiments demonstrated that, at these times, there may also be an increase in gamma absorption or decreased gamma emission to compensate for the disrupted primary energy cycle. In tissues, most of this gamma radiation is absorbed by the cell water, largely because there is more water in the body than any other molecule. The radiation causes one of the oxygen-hydrogen bonds in the water to split, leaving a single electron on the hydrogen and one on the oxygen, thus creating two radicals: a hydrogen radical (or hydrogen atom), and the hydroxyl radical. The latter is the most reactive radical known to chemistry. Modern medicine has dubbed these partial molecules "free radicals." (42)

Implications for free radical involvement in idiopathic thermogenesis.

Free radicals have one or more unpaired electrons. Unpaired electrons make the species more attracted to a magnetic field (they are said to be paramagnetic). Of interest, is that the majority of documented SHC events have occurred during times of increased geomagnetic flux in the vicinity of the victim (data are not available for the less severe cases of idiopathic burning). This paramagnetism, in turn, gives free radicals a highly reactive nature.

Various free radical species have been implicated in over fifty diseases (43). This large number suggests that radicals are not uncommon, but rather participate as a fundamental component of tissue injury in most, if not all, human diseases. Once again, a comparison can be made to those falling prey to idiopathic thermogenic events in that most have experienced a disease or physical infirmity, like KF, which might predispose them to dysfunctional cellular operations, increased gamma radiation energy needs, and subsequently, more free radical buildup.

Further evidence linking free radicals with idiopathic thermogenesis can be found in the long term sequelae resulting from these events. The most common and serious long-term sequelae of SJS and TEN are the ocular complications. The conjunctivitis that can occur damages or completely destroys the goblet cells of the conjunctiva, which results in instability of the precorneal tear film, and corneal drying and opacification. The corneal damage can lead to decreased visual acuity and even blindness. The incidence of long-term ocular complications from SJS and TEN are reported at 10 to 27% of patients (44). It is well known that the eye is especially sensitive to free radicals. In fact, a large amount of evidence implies that prolonged exposure to ultraviolet radiation is a factor in lens aging and cataract formation (45).

Free radicals are observed in oxidation reactions, combustion reactions, and many other biological reactions. A common feature of the reactions of free radicals with nonradicals is that they tend to proceed as chain reactions, where one radical begets another (46). As previously mentioned, increased intracellular ionizing radiation exposure would subsequently increase production of free radicals.

This may have been the case for KF whose gamma counts decreased over 10,000 from background readings (heart region) during a 100-second time period while receiving Polarity therapy, a hand-mediated energy practice that may involve stronger magnetic fields around the hands of the healers (see table 3). For KF, control measurements taken prior to the therapy session also demonstrated a disproportionately elevated absorption (see table 2) which may indicate a consistent elevated absorption of gamma radiation.

If this is the case, additional free radicals would be formed by continuous influx of ionizing radiation into incoherent cells or from a subsequent delay in gamma emission. KF also reported feeling "a weight lifted off her chest," following the Polarity therapy which, according to the practitioner, released energy blocks in her heart region. Under certain conditions, these energized free radicals might combust. "Theoretically, the complex organic compounds of the human body should immediately combust in the oxygen of the air (as occult magazines, such as The Unexplained, occasionally claim that people have done) but the spin restriction and other factors slow this down, fortunately!"(47). But what if those "other factors" changed?

The typical reaction of free radical electrons is for the unpaired electron to pair with another electron. However, this is not the only possible reaction. Unpaired electrons also seek to annihilate with positrons, their antimatter counterparts. This reaction creates two 511 KeV gamma rays which are emitted in opposite directions (a 180-degree angle). Thus, theoretically, fewer than half a dozen simultaneous annihilations within a cell could provide enough energy to liberate neutrons and protons from certain atoms such as deuterium. But where does the elusive positron come from inside a cell?

One little-known fact is that our bodies naturally contain radioactive elements. One Japanese study determined that contributions of each radionuclide to the total effective dose are potassium-40, or K40, (63%), lead-210, or Pb210, (16%), and Polonium-210, or Po210, (16%) (48). An often ignored or unrecognized feature of K40 is that it decays to Ar-40 via emission of positrons in approximately 0.001% of all decay processes (49). Accordingly, the localized energies cluster around the K40 decay sites with the major impacts occurring when intracellular K40 levels are highly concentrated as was the case with KF.

In comparison to Plutonium (Pu238-239) in the air of the lungs, which produces one disintegration each 500,000 seconds, e.g., one decay per 5.8 days, K40 produces 50 disintegrations per second. This represents, in the lungs alone, 25,000,000 times more decays from K40 than plutonium equating to a total of 4,320,000 disintegrations with 4,320 possible positron emissions (0.001% of total K40 decays) per day (50). These occurrences, if clustered in and around intracellular free radical electrons within the water could, theoretically, produce highly energized annihilation events (see figure 2).

Figure 2

Figure 2 shows internal ionizing radiation being produced within the cell and exacerbating free radical production.


This accumulation of radioactive isotopes within the cell serves as a basic component of radiogenic metabolism and, may also, be accelerated in times of stress or disease. When accompanied by increased free radical production, the chance for a positron-electron reaction multiplies. Similarly, documented ingestion of known radioactive materials, e.g., potassium supplements such as those taken by KF, will further increase the matter-antimatter potential and the likelihood of an intracellularly-mediated nuclear event (51).

In addition to the electron-positron mechanism to produce high-energy gamma radiation within the cells capable of producing a photodisintegration event, the K40 itself provides an abundant supply of gamma radiation. K40, the most commonly occurring radioactive source within the human body, represents two-thirds of our internal radiation. It is found intracellularly, predominantly, in the lean mass of human tissues. Each day, 0.12 uCi (micro Curies) of K40 in the average man emits 41 million gamma rays (1.46 MeV), 300 million beta rays (.56 MeV), and 500 million delta rays (various energies). The biological half-life of K40 is 30 days (51).

K40 not only effects intracellular H2O but also comes into contact with intracellular D2O (deuterium oxide). Deuterium atoms are rare; sources differ in the natural abundance of deuterium, ranging from 1 part in 4000 to 1 part in 7000 (1:4000 or 1:7000) with an average of approximately 1:6000. Subsequently, of all the water a person drinks, or comes in contact with, 1 drop in every 6000 drops will be a drop of heavy water (52). The photodisintegration of deuterium, releasing a proton and neutron, can be accomplished with as little as 2.225 MeV (calculated cross section).

The bulk of deuterium is found in fat deposits with only small amounts in other tissues. Fat is far richer in carbon and hydrogen than any of the other primary foodstuffs. The combustibility of fat is due to its high hydrogen content that burns invisibly and generates tremendous temperatures (supporting the relationship to IT). Also of importance is that two-thirds of all water intake by humans is via the skin where the preponderance of IT conditions begin, e.g., epidermal and dermal layers.

In the more severe cases of IT, such as SHC, the torso area is predominantly consumed. This may be explained by the fact that the liver fat is found to contain two to three times as much deuterium as that of other fat depots.

Recent work reported by Benford and Arnold on a known cellulose-based artifact from a presumed SHC-event (book dust jacket from the George Mott case of 1986) provided compelling evidence for a biologically-induced nuclear event. The book jacket was evaluated using visual/light microscopy, Fourier Transform Infrared (IR) analysis, X-ray Photoelectron Spectroscopy (XPS), and Carbon-14 dating (53).

The results indicated significant visual, microscopic, atomic and molecular differences between the blackened front cover of the Mott book jacket and the unaffected back cover. Carbon-14 "aging" was noted for the Mott book jacket in comparison to the identical book jacket control sample. This compared to similar aging noted on a cotton tunic worn by a person exposed to the atom bomb at Nagasaki (54).

Diol dehydration can account for each variation observed in the IR spectrum of the blackened front cover vs. normal back cover of the Mott book dust jacket: the OH and C-O disappearance, the modified CH signal and the C=O signal appearance. At the same time, the spectrums show the carbon background, which could be formed if a thermal energy source, was applied beyond the dehydration in a fast photonic burst. A thermal, or proton radiation effect, can account for the carbonized organic material more easily than an acid (55).

One theory, that may account for all the empirical data found in the Mott case is a biologically-induced nuclear explosion. In such an intracellular nuclear reaction scenario occurring within the body of the victim, both neutron and proton radiation would be released, leaving remnant effects on the artifacts found at the post-SHC scene. This theory is capable of explaining most, if not all, of the scientific findings both on the book dust jacket and at the post-SHC scene at Mott's house.

Similarities within the continuum.

The author hypothesizes that the previously-denoted cases of SHC occur as the latter manifestation of the idiopathic thermogenesis continuum with a chain reactive nuclear response creating the carbonization effects often describing the remains of the victims involved. The less involved cases therefore represent side effects from heightened proportions of internal ionizing radiation without triggering a nuclear response. It should be noted that EM, SJS, TEN, and SHC share numerous similarities:

One patient diagnosed with TEN described her experience, "First I just had the rash on my face, arms, and legs, and then it was all over, even my lips and my eyes. I got these blisters like I was in one of those horror movies after a nuclear explosion."(56) Both increased gamma absorption/retention in response to increased cellular energy needs plus additional electron-positron annihilations resulting in increased gamma radiation within the cell could contribute to radiation-type burns. The severity would depend on the variables related to the patient's condition; thus the frail elderly and the most infirm would suffer more severe sequelae, which seems to be the observed outcomes in both TEN and SHC.


If, as posited, ionizing radiation is involved as an alternative intracellular fuel source, then a disruption in this mechanism may contribute to further energy buildup which, if blocked as believed to be the case with KF, may incite a chain reaction among the most reactive free radicals harbored by the most dysfunctional cells. It is of interest to note that KF had been taking prescription-strength potassium supplements for several years prior to the SHC event. It is also pertinent to note that most SHC cases involve the area of greatest infirmity or disease, and may leave healthier tissue uninvolved (57).

Furthermore, if this transmutation involves higher-energy reactions, e.g., electron-positron annihilations within the cells or photodisintegration of deuterium, then it would explain the magnitude of disruption documented in many idiopathic thermogenic events, especially those resulting in a high degree of radiation-type after-effects. Various caveats need to be studied involving this type of burning in disease conditions which disturb the normal cellular and electron balances.

Future research should focus on these phenomena and other similar conditions known to generate excessive free radicals while requiring high doses of potassium supplementation and/or predisposing the person to hyperkalemia. This research should include external gamma radiation monitoring of patients diagnosed with idiopathic thermogenesis of all levels at various times in their recovery process. Further testing needs to be conducted monitoring the use of alternative healing energy modalities with sufferers of various forms of idiopathic thermogenesis to ascertain any benefits that may be obtained from "balancing" the patient's energy fields. Special emphasis should be focused on patients who have experienced repeat episodes of any of the multiple idiopathic thermogenic permutations.


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Author info:

M. Sue Benford, Principal Investigator

2408 Sovron Ct.

Dublin, OH 43016

phone (614) 766-5288, fax (614) 766-4242


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