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.


“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 (Uijeongbu Millrak-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:


Fan Death

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.

Fan Death
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