Fan death. The commonly held belief in South Korea that sleeping in a closed room with an electric fan on all night will kill you. Seriously.
According to the South Korean government’s consumer agency, electric fans claim between seven and ten lives every year. The same government body also states that asphyxiation from fans is one of the top five causes of summer fatalities.
“If bodies are exposed to electric fans or air conditioners for too long, it causes bodies to lose water and hypothermia. If directly in contact with a fan, this could lead to death from increase of carbon dioxide saturation concentration and decrease of oxygen concentration. The risks are higher for the elderly and patients with respiratory problems.”
Now, you may be wondering how a seemingly harmless electrical appliance can transform overnight into a brutal cold-blooded killer?
Well, there are several suggested ’causes’ of death by fan.
The first is hypothermia. Our metabolisms naturally slow down at night and this makes us more sensitive to temperature changes. If the fan is left on all night, the change in room temperature can in turn cause our body temperature to drop so much that it causes organ failure and hypothermia. Hmm…
The second is death through prolonged asphyxiation. This theory claims that if a fan blows air directly onto your face, it creates a kind of vortex, and the fast moving flow of air makes it difficult to breathe so you slowly suffocate.
The third theory is that the fan motor actually converts the oxygen in the room into carbon dioxide, thus suffocating its sleeping victim.
Lastly, and my personal favourite, is that the blades of the fan ‘chop up’ all of the air particles in the room leaving you none to breathe. Now, I’m no Einstein but I’m pretty sure that that isn’t right.
So where did this absurd myth originate from?
The origins of this mind-boggling superstition remain a mystery. Electric fans had been used in Korea for over 80 years before the first reported case of fan death. One theory however, is that the rumour was actually started by the South Korean government during the 1970s as an attempt to reduce energy usage at a time when there were limited supplies.
Is it all just a lot of hot air?
There is no scientific evidence that sleeping in a room with a fan running all night alone will kill you. In fact, several studies have disproven the theories beyond doubt. Most of the deaths are actually attributed to alcohol poisoning, heart conditions or other undiagnosed medical problems. In 2007 Dr. John Linton, who had carried out autopsies on several fan death victims, told the International Herald Tribune “there are several things that could be causing the fan deaths, things like pulmonary embolisms, cerebrovascular accidents or arrhythmia. There is little scientific evidence to support that a fan alone can kill you if you are using it in a sealed room. Although it is a common belief among Koreans, there are other explainable reasons for why these deaths are happening.”
Yet South Koreans of all ages, classes and backgrounds continue to believe in this urban legend. Even doctors and medical professionals warn of the dangers of electric fans.
How can we protect ourselves from these silent assassins?
The Korean Consumer Protection Agency advises that doors or windows should be left open when sleeping with the electric fan or air conditioner turned on, to prevent the oxygen from being converted into carbon dioxide/sucked out of the room/chopped up into tiny pieces. Also, most fans now sold in Korea come with a timer device that automatically switches it off after a certain amount of time, no doubt saving tens of lives every year.
We slept with the fan on last night, and I feel lucky to have escaped with my life.