Fan Death

August 10th, 2007 · Society · 18 comments

Fan death” is one of those urban legends which refuses to die, like alligators in the New York City sewers or LSD pasted onto the backs of little kids’ stickers. Korea’s particular legend is that of fan death which, if you don’t know already, purports that one can die from sleeping in a sealed room with an electric fan turned on. The notion gets plenty of play every summer in the credulous media, backed up by plenty of medical experts who should really know better. KBS recently aired this investigative report, with results which may not surprise you. You can read the translated transcript below.

As summer comes to an end there are various reports coming out about people who died after going to sleep with an electric fan on.

But, are the fans really the reason for those deaths?

Medical reporter Shin Su-ah investigates.

<report>

“A silent death follows inevitably upon falling asleep with the fan on on a humid night.”

In the last three years there have about 20 such reports of fan death.

Many people believe that most of the deaths were due to hypothermia or suffocation.

<interview> Kim Jeong-hyeon (UijeongbuMillrak-dong) : “It’s because of the wind generated by the fan. The air goes outside and has to come back inside but it can’t, so the person can suffocate…”

People say that the pressure difference created above your nose will make it difficult to breathe.

And many people are worried that fans will diminish the amount of air for breathing.

<interview> Song Min-seong (Namyangju) : “The amount of air is limited but machines stir it all up and so no matter how little oxygen there is it poses a danger.”

Here the fan causes temperatures to lower so that there is a risk of death by hypothermia.

We examined the reality of what effects an electric fan can have on the human body.

Three healthy men were put in separate rooms, first where nothing was moving, then later in rooms with fans and air conditioning turned on and their conditions were carefully monitored as they slept.

In the motionless rooms the sleeping mens’ internal oxygen levels were measured to be 90% and, perhaps due to the heat, were not able to get more than 83% deep, efficient sleep.

When they slept with fans turned on, the men had a 94% oxygen level, a gradual increase inside their bodies, and the rate of deep sleep was also higher at 85%.

With the air conditioners turned on the oxygen levels stayed steady at 94% while the rate of deep sleep was the best at 95%.

We concluded that fans do not suck out oxygen.

Though the closed doors and windows did obstruct the free flow of air the oxygen levels tested normal.

If in fact fans do move so quickly that the face is deprived of oxygen, then on windy days or in a moving car with open windows people ought to suffocate also.

We investigated the ways in which an electric fan could lower a person’ body temperature.

In the rooms with nothing moving and in the rooms with fans turned on, body temperatures stayed at 37 degrees while in rooms with air conditioning turned on it was slightly lower at 36.3 degrees.

As the body can always regulate its core temperature at 36.5 degrees it would be very difficult to drop the core temperature to less than the fatal temperature of 30 degrees.

<interview> Oh Beom-jin (Asan Hospital emergency care professor) : “If the surface of the skin is cooled by moving air the blood vessels respond by constricting, raising the temperature. But because the core temperature is always regulated to the particular level required by humans….”

He concluded that in these cases the cause of death was not the fans.

<interview> Lee Yun-seong (professor of medical law at Seoul National University) : “In most situations the person dies of some other cause and people just happen to come across a switched-on fan. The autopsy can’t find the real cause of death, and the fan seems like maybe it could be the reason so it’s mistaken as the real cause.”

Every time we turn one on to sleep in a small room — that awkward fan.

In a truly modern perspective, electric fans and air conditioning cannot be considered the instruments of death through lowered body temperature.

And now let’s check out what those irrepressible netizens have to say — I’d say they’re pretty well unconvinced.

김은숙: In my little room, I once closed the door and blew a nice breeze around with my fan but a few hours after I fell asleep my chest was pounding and I wasn’t able to breathe and I couldn’t even move my fingers. With only the power of my desperation I turned off the fan and I could finally take nice, deep breaths. I felt like I had pulled myself back from the gates of Hell itself. So I think this broadcast was completely irresponsible. Life is a precious thing. I hope they broadcast a report to correct this one.

이영희: For an exact test of whether it’s hypoacidity or suffocation we can see that there are three necessary conditions. First, a deep sleeper, sufferer of chronic fatigue, or a drunk; second, the fan’s wind hits only the face; and third, observation must continue for at least 3 hours of sleep. According to the news it was just a small fan…

최종묵: Ah, that’s good. I used to sleep well under my fan but I would feel really worried about it so this news put me at peace.

김택수: When I was about 20 years old I once drank too much and went into a small yeogwon room and fell asleep with the fan on. I’d heard every summer on tv about people who died from fan death, so I slept facing the wall and in the morning, I got up and my face was all puffy, kind of bloated. I’m really glad for those broadcasts which saved me from being directly exposed to the risk of fan death and now I always turn off the fan before I go to bed. This show was totally irresponsible. If only 1 person dies as a result they should spend 10,000 years in suffering.

Update: Two updates for you. First, some more netizen comments were left on the original story, offering their take on the first story above. They have, uh, very different perspectives.

안진오: You’ve really opened my eyes. ㅋㅋㅋ When are Koreans who believe in fan death like some third-world country going to get their heads right.

이재헌: That sounds like it was a real nightmare. -_-;

Next, check out this warning tucked into a brand-new fan purchased in Korea and scanned by a generous reader:

It says, “Do not use to generate a strong wind close to you in a sealed room. There is a high risk of death if used while sleeping.”

Further Update: Very tragic. We’ve had a report of death by air conditioning.

18 comments

  • Thank you so much for the translation.

    Jon · August 10th, 2007 at 1:53 PM

  • No sweat — it was fun, and not too difficult, which is always good. I wonder what other persistent urban legends I could find something about.

    Korea Beat · August 10th, 2007 at 2:14 PM

  • Makes sense…I’ve heard of fan deaths but only if the fan is facing directly on your face and it’s not moving…doesn’t make sense that a fan can suck air because it’s not a vacuum.

    Eve · August 10th, 2007 at 2:51 PM

  • hahaha that was funny. i guess i could be called a walking miracle in the korean’s eyes. because every night i sleep with my ceiling fan on right over my face, and also with my windows and doors closed. guess what i am still here.lol….before i moved into my new home w/the ceiling fans. i had to use a electrical fan and yes i slept facing it and nothing happened. i wonder in any of those death by fan reports someone checked to see if any of those houses/apartments had carbon dioxide leaks. that could been another way the person could have died. thanks for the article it was fun to read. *i hope i don’t die tonight*lol

    cjlatina · August 11th, 2007 at 12:18 PM

  • It will be a sad day when Koreans no longer believe in fan death…

    Sam · August 11th, 2007 at 6:02 PM

  • The netizen response is the best part! Gee, a night of [heavy crazy binge] drinking and you wake up with a puffy face? It MUST have been the fan trying to kill you!

    I like sleeping with the A/C on, as I do everynight, with the windows closed, and with not a single complaint from my Korean girlfriend who has asked me on several occasions to CLOSE the windows so as to lock out the non-stop noise from outside. Notice those who slept with the A/C on enjoyed deeper sleep too.

    Max Watson · August 15th, 2007 at 6:50 PM

  • I believe this urban myth was the result of some sort of heat wave or just the hot summers(summers in Korean can very hot), that may have occurred in Korea.

    People, especially the elderly, were probably more affected by the heat.

    During this heat wave, trying to relieve themselves from the heat, a person turns on a fan and directs it in their general direction. Some would maybe be lying down with the fan directed at them. While in this position, the person would die
    from the heat exhaustion (correct term?). Thus the
    “fan death”.

    Well, that was just my 2 cents.

    Jack · August 16th, 2007 at 12:15 AM

  • […] to know the extent of this urban legend? It took a big investigative reporting to courageously say: “We concluded that fans do not suck out […]

    Q: Why “fans manufactured and sold in Korea are often equipped with a timer switch that turns them off after a set number of minutes, which users are urged to set when going to sleep with a fan on”? « Link En Fuego · August 20th, 2007 at 11:49 AM

  • It could also happen that those who woke up with ‘bad feeling’ had set the fan for too strong and simply caught cold. At least I do wake up with breathing difficulties sometimes when in a room with AC, but I know that’s only from being sensitive to cold. (My worst experiences were in USA, those folks go under 19 degree celsius)

    Mark · August 20th, 2007 at 6:04 PM

  • I would think the people who died from ‘fan death’ must have had heart attacks or some other cause of death that would have happened with or without the fan. Yes, it is sad that they died. There is no factual basis to believe the fans had something to do with it.

    D.R. · August 21st, 2007 at 3:51 AM

  • I’m just wondering if people in Korea realise that no one else in the world has even heard of “fan death” or that when they do hear about it they find it amusing.

    Sally Macoy · August 21st, 2007 at 1:24 PM

  • –I’m just wondering if people in Korea realise that no one else in the world has even heard of “fan death” or that when they do hear about it they find it amusing. —

    I have been living in Korea for a year now, and what I have learned mostly about Koreans is that they are incredibly ethnocentric. Seeing that this is (almost) a strictly Korean belief other countries don’t even consider it, thus it would not be the topic of discussion for any Korean talking to any foreigner. For those that do bring it up with a foreigner I would hope that they would realize that there is no threat to leaving a fan on in an enclosed room… but after a year here nothing shocks me in what the general Korean public would believe.

    Nick Weber · September 2nd, 2007 at 6:05 PM

  • Hey

    I’m in Korea and noone here eats fruit without peeling it completely first. They don’t even eat the skin of grapes! They seem to believe that the agricultural chemicals are higly dangerous if not fatal. Are their farming practices very different from us (UK) making this possibly true? or are they just overly scared.

    zenna · September 3rd, 2007 at 7:13 PM

  • They don’t eat the skins in Japan either. I got someone to try it last night and she made a face like she’d just bit into a lemon. I think it’s really just more of a cultural difference rather than really having a reason.

    Korea Beat · September 8th, 2007 at 5:30 PM

  • […] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fan_death http://www.lostnomad.org/?p=3508 http://koreabeat.com/?p=184 […]

    There : Fan Death « Look Mom I’m Going to Korea! · September 11th, 2007 at 10:55 PM

  • There have been confirmed deaths as a result of building mold in the United States. While this is the first time I recalling having heard of anything exactly like “fan death”, it doesn’t seem entirely illogical to suppose that if one were living in a dwelling that had mold conditions similar to those in build that have killed, the use of a fan in that enclosed area could perhaps make the exposure worse. A website that actually addresses the issue of “fan death” directly has many far-fetched suggestions like hypothermia (in an enclosed room?), spirits, and vacuum over the face due to moving air (!) O_o so I am going to guess that not a lot of serious scientific attention has yet been paid to this subject… but sleeping close to the ground, and a fan close to the ground preventing the settling of dust could also result in increased inhalation of particulate matter. The chemical irritants present in a building with toxic mold cause a variety of health issues.

    “Valley fever” is particularly well known here in Arizona to be the result of breathing in the crud in the air on a dry, dusty, windy day. The Santa Ana wind in California also once had a similar reputation with the Spanish colonists. Considering the effects of certain windy weather patterns and the effects of certain types of indoor pollution are well known, its very easy to see how there may be a tiny nugget of truth at the bottom of the larger myth that needs to be studied.

    zaphraud · October 27th, 2007 at 11:01 AM

  • […] a few reported deaths caused by “fan death.” So although it’s an urban legend, it’s a widely believed urban legend. (that link goes to a translation at the Korean beat of an investigative report on Fan […]

    Funk Seoul Sister · October 7th, 2008 at 3:05 PM

  • I suspect suicide victim’s families bribe officials to write fan death on the death certificate.

    Jacob Yogel · April 28th, 2009 at 6:54 PM

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