Korean Fan Death

An urban legend in Korea states that running an electric fan at night can kill you.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Health, Urban Legends

Skeptoid #287
December 6, 2011
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe
 

Korean fan death
Fan death warning label
(Public domain image)

Today we're going to point the skeptical eye at a traditional belief from Korea, one at which many Westerners merely scoff. Many Koreans believe that sleeping in a room with an electric fan running is potentially lethal, even to the point that many Korean doctors and safety agencies formally warn against doing so. Scientists outside of Korea, however, easily dismiss the deaths as misdiagnoses of other conditions, and handily debunk the proposed mechanisms for the danger as implausible. But some Koreans have countered that there must be some explanation unique to Korea or Koreans: something to do with physiology, geography, or even their particular electric fans. Could Koreans be right that there is something more to this urban legend than mere tradition and confirmation bias?

Korean fan death isn't very old; not even going back as far as the use of electric fans in the country. The first electricity was installed at Gyeongbok Palace in 1887, just a few years after Schuyler Wheeler made the first two-bladed electric fans commercially available. By 1900, companies like Toshiba were manufacturing and selling electric fans throughout Asia. Despite nearly a century of history of usage without incident, in the 1970s the Korean media suddenly began reporting cases of fan death. They happened in the summer, in a closed room, and usually involved an elderly person sleeping alone, with an electric fan running in the room. In the morning, the victim would be found dead, with the only evident cause of death being the electric fan still sitting there, blowing its supposedly lethal breeze.

The situation today is that government safety agencies warn that fans must be used safely. The Korea Consumer Protection Board analyzed reports of heat-related injuries during the summer months for the three years prior to 2006, and made recommendations to address the five most often recurring dangers, with the first on the list being that doors should be left open when using electric fans or air conditioning.

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.

From 2003-2005, a total of 20 cases were reported through the CISS involving asphyxiations caused by leaving electric fans and air conditioners on while sleeping. To prevent asphyxiation, timers should be set, wind direction should be rotated and doors should be left open.

Other government agencies give similar guidelines. As a result, many electric fans available in Korea today are equipped with an automatic timer feature, to make the fan turn itself off after a period of time for safety reasons. Fans from the Korean manufacturer Shinil Industrial bear a warning label that states "This product may cause suffocation or hypothermia". Such fans have a little warning sticker, a red circle with a yellow center, showing a body laying beside an electric fan.

The obvious questions to ask are how and why does this happen? But the important rule of thumb we learn to remember here is that the first question we should ask when investigating a strange phenomenon is does it actually happen at all? Obviously people do die in Korea, and some of them have fans running at the time. Whether the fan is causing the death is a question for the Korean coroners; and whether there's a plausible mechanism for such a death is a question for science. Let's take a quick look at the proposed explanations.

When we do this, we encounter our first red flag. Proposed explanations for Korean fan death are all over the map. There is no accepted scientific explanation. The most common is asphyxiation, caused by wind currents. Hypothermia is the second strongest contender, caused by the fan evaporating enough sweat off the victim's skin to wick away enough heat to kill them. But Korea's temperate climate is wet year round, especially during its summer monsoon season. The summers are hot and wet, and the winters are cold and comparatively dry. Fan death is a summer phenomenon; it's hot and wet. Are people really dying of hypothermia in such conditions? It is possible, if a stretch, if the fan's current is steady and dry enough. But fans don't dry the air or change its temperature; they merely circulate it.

Some posit really far-out explanations based on purely bad science. Some think the fan blades chop the oxygen molecules in half, rendering them useless or even poisonous; others believe that electric fans use up oxygen and produce carbon dioxide.

And, as with many urban legends, there's even a conspiracy theory that's been proposed to explain fears of fan death. When the stories first appeared in the 1970s, it was during a time when energy usage was sharply on the rise, and the Korean government thought up and spread the rumor to scare people into turning off their fans at night and saving energy. But like so many unproven conspiracy theories, this one has a pretty large hole in its logic. Energy usage during the summer is greatest during the day; and if the government was going to invent a rumor designed to reduce consumption, it would have made more sense to get people to turn something off during the day, like air conditioning or lights.

At least one Western expert has endorsed the theory that it is indeed the effect of the fan that kills. Dr. Laurence Kalkstein at the University of Miami is a climatologist and biometeorologist, studying the effects of weather on plants and animals including humans. At a conference in Korea, he explained that a fan blowing on an elderly person sleeping in a hot room would actually dehydrate the skin, causing death from respiratory distress. Even though the air blown onto the victim is as humid as a Korean monsoon, it should still carry away some amount of sweat from the skin, causing dehydration. So far as I've been able to find, Kalkstein has not examined any victims of fan death, so his suggested explanation remains unconfirmed.

However, there are doctors who have examined fan death victims. In 2007, Dr. John Linton who had autopsied several such people, 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.

Dr. Lee Yoon Song told the Korea Times in 2006:

Korean reporters are constantly writing inaccurate articles about death by fan, describing these deaths as being caused by the fan. That's why it seems that fan deaths only happen in Korea, when in reality these types of deaths are quite rare. They should have reported the victim's original defects such as heart or lung disease, which are the main cause of death in these cases.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

But these dissenting opinions are in the minority. Most fan death victims examined by Korean doctors are given a cause of death of asphyxiation caused by the fan. Two professors of emergency medicine at Seoul's Samsung Medical Center agree that when a fan blows on your face, air currents develop that reduce the atmospheric pressure in front of your face by as much as 20%, causing a similar drop in oxygen availability. The victim then dies from the lack of oxygen. This is the prevailing view among Korean doctors who accept the fan death diagnosis.

The view is also wildly implausible, from any number of basic science perspectives. First, we don't observe people keeling over dead on mildly breezy days, even if they're sitting on a beach facing into the breeze for a long time. Second, we have no cases of brain damage from asphyxiation that was not quite sufficient to kill, which should be far more prevalent if this were indeed happening. Third, wind striking you in the face does not reduce the pressure at the front of your head; it increases it. Fourth, 20% is a huge pressure differential. 15 kph of wind would create around 55 grams of pressure on the average head, which is less than 1% of 1% more than normal atmospheric pressure. The Samsung doctors' 20% drop in pressure on one side of your head would require in the neighborhood of 100 kilograms of force at sea level, which would require a wind speed of at least 650 kph. So if you're using an F-18 fighter jet engine for a fan, it starts to look plausible.

So how do we properly analyze the phenomenon of Korean Fan Death? If we follow a truly skeptical process, what do we come up with? We've looked at the data and found that there are, indeed, plenty of people who have been found dead near a fan and had their deaths classified as fan death. But we also have good reasons to suspect that those causes of death were misdiagnosed: there are simply no plausible mechanisms for the breeze from a fan to be lethally dangerous. There was no significant difference in fan design introduced around the time the deaths began to be reported, and no differences between Korean fans and those in the rest of the world. There is nothing unique to Korea's geography (that we know of) that would explain why such a thing happens only there, and there aren't really any comparable cases of unique geography elsewhere in the world making certain technologies dangerous. Koreans outside of Korea don't seem to have any trouble with fans, and there is no known difference in Korean anatomy that would make them especially susceptible. Truly, all the possible factors that would make fan death a uniquely Korean phenomenon fall apart under scrutiny.

However, there's at least one remaining possibility that can explain what's being reported, and it doesn't require any new discoveries about anatomy or fans, or any special conditions. The simple fact is that we absolutely expect to see a correlation between summer deaths and fan usage. When it's hot and muggy in the summer, people are going to be running their fans; and when high-risk elderly people happen to die from whatever heat-related cause, it's perfectly likely that a running fan will be found nearby. The perception of a causal relationship between the two will be reinforced every time it's confirmed by another such body being found. This simple confusion between correlation and causation adequately explains all twenty diagnoses investigated by the Korea Consumer Protection Board, and it explains the convictions of the doctors, the fan manufacturers, and the safety boards.

So we never really get past our original question: Whether fan death has ever actually happened. It may have, most likely via hypothermia, but it would have to be in a colder, drier climate, and would be evenly distributed throughout such regions of the world. But so far as the existence of a specific Korean fan death phenomenon, the skeptical mind concludes no, there is no good evidence for such a thing's existence.

Brian Dunning

© 2011 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Editors. "Why Do Koreans Think Electric Fans Will Kill Them?" Esquire. Hearst Communications, Inc., 22 Jan. 2009. Web. 1 Dec. 2011. <http://www.esquire.com/style/answer-fella/korean-fan-death-0209>

Editors. "The Truth of Fan Death?" Associated Press. 16 Jul. 2008, Newspaper.

Mikkelson, B. "Fan Death." Snopes.com. Barbara and David P. Mikkelson, 6 Jul. 2011. Web. 3 Dec. 2011. <http://www.snopes.com/medical/freakish/fandeath.asp>

Office of Public Relations. Beware of Summer Hazards! Seoul: Korea Consumer Protection Board, 2006.

Shin-who, K. "Do Electric Fans Cause Death?" Korea Times. 10 Sep. 2006, Newspaper.

Surridge, G. "Newspapers fan belief in urban myth." International Herald Tribune. 10 Jan. 2007, Newspaper.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Korean Fan Death." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 6 Dec 2011. Web. 31 Oct 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4287>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 72 comments

Macky, please stick to wiring peoples phones. Clearly you science impersonation of Oxygen molecules and oxygen ions was meant to be comedy but those north of the equator wouldnt get that.

Mind you, the comment on nuclear fission by Anonymous could have ruined your schtick had you not thrown in that great line about the relative you havent recognised until July 26, 2012.

Anonymous, you make a great straight man for these routines. Macky, in standards we used to have to polish knobs on a daily basis.

You are an example of commitment!

Could I refer you to an organic chemistry book so you can understand oxidation reactions? There is a fun line at the start of every paragraph in a chemistry text.

Mud, Sutho cricket ground, NSW, OZ
July 26, 2012 10:54pm

You're right, Mud. I only got two runs away before I was clean bowled at the Sutho cricket ground.

I rather hoped that a combined Australasian think-tank alliance would be formed, with increasingly brilliant theories posted in the fond hope that we may suddenly stumble on a solution for the Korean Fan Death problem.

Unfortunately that's been knocked on the head, now.

Ah well, back to the pavilion for a cuppa tea.

Macky out for two, Auckland
July 27, 2012 12:01am

Thankfully, yerv said it perfectly...as the kiwi side exempliarises.. its all ducks till a spin bowler bats!

Yer a clever person and some of the twists and turns you take are breath taking.

Enjoy Macky!

As to an Australian think tank?

We like it with fine wine and beer. Thank goodness we have our little brother New Zealand to supply us superb hop and spectacular sport.

If that was not enough to be proud of, New Zealand has superb science.

Antipodeans must mean progress...

Its just we have very weird vice chancellors and "equivalence" technical education.

Brian likes his think tank in a spa pool. Check skepticzone.

Clearly its a warm water predilection that those above the equator can afford on their energy policies!

See you soon!

Mud, Sutho cricket ground, NSW, OZ
July 27, 2012 12:27am

Dang, wish I had a Korean fan blowing me all night but I am not famous enough to have fans ;)

I can remember reading about this a while ago and thought it was all spoof or hoax, but no, they do believe it.

I would like to know where the origin came from, would make a great study as to the foundation and propagation of myth and lore.

The correlation and causation fallacy seems much in evidence, a lot of folks have died in hospital beds and in armchairs in their own home - ban them now !!

My sister died a few years ago and they never found out what killed her, just peacefully died in her sleep at 39. No booze, no drugs, no heart problems, she was fit and healthy and looking forward to a great life with her family and new child.

Sometimes people just die, maybe someday we will know all the answers as to why, but if sis had been Korean with a fan in her bedroom she would have been a fan death, I suspect.

Just goes to show that even today a whole country can believe in the 'truth' of nonsense.

David Healey, Maidenhead, UK
September 14, 2012 1:00pm

Haha, I can't believe he did this one. I lived in South Korea for 5 years as an English teacher. The first time I heard about it was when a teacher at another school in my town died. My boss told me about it and said it was the fan. My first though, "Oh, was there a fire?" Then my co-worker explained the whole thing to me and I had never been more confused in my life.
Later that summer when I bought a fan I noticed that the timer would buzz when it was set to stay on all the time. I had to open it up adjust the wiring, thus making me far more susceptible to the most likely cause of fire death, electrical fire.
Finally, fans can lead to death via hyperthermia, not hypothermia, in a closed room with a high enough temperature. The EPA explains it here http://www.epa.gov/hiri/about/pdf/EHEguide_final.pdf. However, the deaths tend to occur at night. So that is not happening either.

Leonard, Las Vegas
February 23, 2013 2:32pm

The thing is, the explanation by geographical or physiological idiosyncrasies do appeal to Koreans, who always like to think of themselves as special or even exceptional. Take my Korean wife, for example: she is convinced that child delivery is more dangerous for Asians (especially Koreans) than for Westerners, because Korean women are supposed to be more fragile. No mention here that Korean women have been delivering babies for millenia in far harsher conditions than today, without a particularly higher rate of death in childbirth. If her belief were true, then Koreans would have been extinguished long ago.

But Koreans have a kind of inferiority complex: they've been overshadowed for so long by China and Japan that they compensate today by overemphasizing their successes and their particularity. This is why many of them will buy into the fan death belief, and why the fact that it only happens in Korea doesn't disturb them.

Talking about this belief with Korean believers, I came across an explanation that resembles the oxygen-chopping blades one: the wind from the fan is MECHANICAL, which is bad, bad, bad, compared to the NATURAL wind which is nice and healthy and doesn't kill people because it's so sweet. Koreans are also big believers in "natural" products.

alfa8my, Seoul, Korea
March 29, 2013 2:43am

@Macky, Auckland-by-the-Sea

If fan blades cut oxygen molecules apart then we would be using them as scientific pieces of equipment. Not as household items used for comfort.

I can imagine the hydroponic and other plant industries would be very upset they have wasted thousands investing in CO2 technologies when all they need to do was turn on a fan.

But I do sense a bit of 'tongue in cheek' with your post. Maybe you have trolled me good.

John, Perth Western Australia
July 25, 2013 6:43pm

John, I've had to move away from the fan-blade O2-chopping theory, due to indecent exposure by a cricket player from the Sutho Cricket Ground in NSW who I am told goes in to bat without a protective cricketers' cup.

For a while I searched diligently for a Korean food which was not eaten by any other nationality, and which caused unbearable and fatal amounts of stomach gas when a fan was also running overnight in the bedroom. Just when I thought I had solved the problem, some aerial ping pong star from Melbourne crows up that he only eats Korean food in his diet, including what I had thought was the culprit of all the Korean fan deaths.
The aussie rules player also stated emphatically in the interview that he regularly uses Korean-brand fans while sleeping at night, and gave assurances to Carlton supporters that he was not in fact dead.

I've come to the conclusion that alfa8my basically has the answer.

Bad mechanical wind, but worsened by a wayward batch of Korean fans which were built to rotate clockwise in harmony with the southern hemisphere, and which were on their way to Sydney.
Something went wrong with the order, and the fans ended up back on the local Korean market being used where fans built for the northern hemisphere would normally be used.

This has enhanced the dangers of Mechanical wind rotating the wrong way through the room, and into the air passages of retirees and old surfers slumbering in the dark, particularly if they snore.

Macky, Auckland
July 26, 2013 2:23am

I don't know about fans, but it is a fact that space heaters in Japan can kill you. See the film "Battle Heater" for details.

Ben, Columbus, OH
March 3, 2014 8:02am

I came across the notion that having a fan in the bedroom is bad for your health when I lived in Syria in 2004. I got terribly ill (dysentery) but when the local doctor arrived the first thing he did was scold us for having a fan in the bedroom, that it could make us sick or even kill us.

"Oh great," I thought, "I have a voodoo doctor. I'm doomed."

Dave, Lexington, KY
October 23, 2014 3:33pm

Make a comment about this episode of Skeptoid (please try to keep it brief & to the point).

Post a reply

 

What's the most important thing about Skeptoid?

Support Skeptoid
 

Newest
The War of the Worlds Panic Broadcast
Skeptoid #438, Oct 28 2014
Read | Listen (11:56)
 
Tube Amplifiers
Skeptoid #437, Oct 21 2014
Read | Listen (14:57 )
 
Ionithermie
Skeptoid #436, Oct 14 2014
Read | Listen (10:11)
 
The St. Clair Triangle UFO
Skeptoid #435, Oct 7 2014
Read | Listen (13:56)
 
The Braxton County Monster
Skeptoid #434, Sep 30 2014
Read | Listen (11:26)
 
Newest
#1 -
Read | Listen
#2 -
The JFK Assassination
Read | Listen
#3 -
Fukushima vs Chernobyl vs Three Mile Island
Read | Listen
#4 -
The Baldoon Mystery
Read | Listen
#5 -
Listeners Have Another Say
Read | Listen
#6 -
Who Discovered the New World?
Read | Listen
#7 -
Tube Amplifiers
Read | Listen
#8 -
6 Problems with Wind Turbine Syndrome
Read | Listen

Recent Comments...

[Valid RSS]

  Skeptoid PodcastSkeptoid on Facebook   Skeptoid on Twitter   Brian Dunning on Google+   Skeptoid on Stitcher   Skeptoid RSS

Members Portal

 
 


Follow @BrianDunning

Tweets about "skeptoid"

Support Skeptoid

Name/Nickname:  
City/Location:
Email: [Why do we need this?]To reduce spam, we email new faces a confirmation link you must click before your comment will appear.
Comment:
characters left. Abusive posts and spam will be deleted.