The Truth About the Korean Phenomenon of “Fan Death”

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Mon, December 31st, 2012

Do you sleep with a fan on? While ceiling and floor fans are regarded as a great way to beat the heat here in the United States, according to some officials in South Korea, leaving a fan pointed at your body all night can actually kill you.

Is “fan death” real? From 2003 to 2005 there were 20 reported cases of asphyxiation caused by people leaving on electric fans and air conditioners while they were sleeping, according to the Korean Consumer Protection Board.

Is “fan death” real? In Korea, from 2003 to 2005 there were 20 reported cases of asphyxiation caused by people leaving on electric fans and air conditioners while they were sleeping, according to the Korean Consumer Protection Board.

“Every summer,” reads a 2011 newspaper article from the Korean Herald, “as well as seasonal typhoons attention is drawn to fan death…the idea that turning on electric fans in a closed room can cause people to die.”

Often the evidence is rudimentary, with nothing more than a dead body and a running fan.

“The 59 years-old victim, only known by his surname Min, was found dead with the fan fixed directly at him,” continues the Korean Herald article. “The police…are still investigating the cause of death.”

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Many people believe there is nothing to investigate at all, and that the issue is bogus. But who would propagate such an untruth, and why? Some people have suggested that the Korean government fabricated the issue in an effort to reduce energy consumption. Fan deaths first appeared in the 1970s, say supporters of this theory, which coincided with the 1970s energy crisis, when oil prices skyrocketed. This was also the time of President Park Chung-hee, who listed creating a self-reliant economy as one of his top goals. Could Chung-hee have made the issue of fan death up out of whole cloth just to get his countrymen to save energy? Unfortunately, finding out for sure is no longer possible; Chung-hee was assassinated by his own chief of security back in 1979.

What about the science of fan death? How exactly does a small electric fan kill you in your sleep? One way, say fan death proponents, is hypothermia, more commonly known as freezing to death. Hypothermia typically kills people in places like Alaska and North Dakota or on top of mountains, but is it really possible in a bedroom? Well, the theory says that as the body’s metabolism slows at night a person becomes more sensitive to temperature and thus more prone to hypothermia. Someone in a closed room with a fan on is liable to have their body temperature lowered slowly but continuously such that they eventually develop hypothermia and freeze to death.

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Another possible issue is carbon dioxide intoxication. Humans breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide, thus someone breathing in an unventilated room will slowly be lowering the level of oxygen and raising the level of carbon dioxide. The idea is that people sleeping in unventilated rooms may use fans to try and diffuse the air and reverse this phenomenon. Only they are unsuccessful, carbon dioxide builds up regardless, and they die. But carbon dioxide intoxication is rare, and even if it were to occur in this scenario, it wouldn’t be appropriate to peg the fan as the cause of death.

The US Environmental Protection Agency does discourage people from using fans in closed rooms without ventilation when the heat index is above 99 ° Farenheit. The increased air movement increases the evaporation of sweat from the skin and makes someone feel cooler, but this in turn increases the heat stress placed on the body and can bring about heat exhaustion and other conditions, says the EPA.

The Piedmont Brain Tumor Center website lists some other ways fan death can supposedly occur: an electric fan creates a vortex which sucks oxygen from the enclosed room; an electric fan “chops up” the air particles leaving none to breathe; if a fan is put directly in front of the face of a sleeping person, it will suck the air away, stopping the person from breathing. According to the site, though, every single one of these theories is flat out wrong.

Nevertheless, in 2006, the Korean Consumer Protection Board issued a consumer safety alert warning that “asphyxiation from electric fans and air conditioners” was among South Korea’s top five most common summer accidents or injuries.

“If bodies are exposed to electric fans or air conditioners for too long, it causes bodies to lose water and [cause] hypothermia,” reads the alert. “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.”

The warning goes on to say that from 2003 to 2005 there were 20 reported cases of asphyxiation caused by people leaving on electric fans and air conditioners while they were sleeping.

3 thoughts on “The Truth About the Korean Phenomenon of “Fan Death””

  1. James Kim

    All three effects contribute each other. Fan decreases body temperature already in lower metabolism while sleeping. Lowered body temp contributes to decrease inhaled oxygen delivery into blood vessel and make body temp even lower and make decrease body metabolism as a cyclic effect. The air speed near nose make it difficult to breath air too. If windows is closed and air intake is bad, the fresh air is rare, then CO2 accumulation on the bottom of the room goes higher. then all these combination could lead to death. It really happened in Korea. The rooms in Korea often very small with no bed (they sleep on the floor with blankets only) and distance from fan to body usually short sometimes just a feet away. If you’re in a bed, the distance from fan to body by default would be a few ft already and not direct into nose and body. Other countries like southest Asia, their rooms are in open space and fairly larger. Korean fear is not exaggeration but based on their experience.

  2. James Kim

    All three effects contribute each other. Fan decrease body temp that already in lower metabolism while sleeping. Lowered body temp contribute to decrease inhaled oxygen delivery into blood vessel and make body temp even lower and make lower again body metabolism. The air speed near nose make it difficult to breath air too. If windows is closed and air intake is bad, the fresh air is rare, then all these combination could lead to death. It really happened in Korea. The rooms in Korea often very small with no bed (they sleep on the floor with blankets only) and distance from fan to body usually short sometimes a feet away. If you’re in a bed, the distance from fan to body by default would be a few ft already and not direct into nose and body. Other countries like southest Asia, their rooms are in open space and fairly larger. Korean fear is not exaggeration but based on their experience.

  3. Ken

    Friends in Taiwan warned me about the same danger in the 1980s, so it wasn’t just Korea.

    My closest brush with death, electric fan department, also occurred in Taiwan. I unknowingly plugged an electric fan into the socket reserved for the A/C. It revved like a Piper Cub for about five seconds and then burned out, fortunately without bursting into flames.

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