The Scourge of Fan Death

An Urban Legend

Death by Electric Fan
Noel Hendrickson/Digital Vision/Getty Images

If you've ever fallen asleep in a closed room with an electric fan running, you're lucky to be alive.

That's what many folks in South Korea believe, at any rate, including some government health authorities. The Korean Consumer Safety Board's 2005 Summer Safety Guide listed "asphyxiation from electric fans and air conditioners" as one of the top five summer hazards, with 20 cases reported between 2003 and 2005.

"Doors should be left open when sleeping with the electric fan or air conditioner turned on," the bulletin recommends. "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."

For this reason, most electric fans sold in South Korea are equipped with an automatic shut-off timer, and some even carry a warning: "This product may cause suffocation or hypothermia."

No Scientific Basis

I know what you're thinking: there couldn't possibly be any scientific basis for this. And you're right. It's a bona fide Korean urban legend, reinforced by 35 years of media coverage of alleged fan-related fatalities. Even many doctors believe in "fan death," apparently, though some, citing a dearth of published research, refuse to grant it credence.

"There is little scientific evidence to support that a fan alone can kill you if you are using it in a sealed room," Dr. John Linton of Severance Hospital in Seoul told JoongAng Daily in 2004. "Although it is a common belief among Koreans, there are other explainable reasons for why these deaths are happening." Like other skeptical health professionals, Linton suspects most of the deaths are attributable to pre-existing health conditions that go unreported in media coverage.

"People believe in fan death because -- one -- they see a dead body and -- two -- a fan running," Seoul National University Hospital Professor Yoo Tai-woo said in a 2007 interview with Reuters. "But normal, healthy people do not die because they slept with a fan running."

Fan Death "Hard to Imagine," Hypothermia Expert Says

JoongAng Daily also contacted a Canadian expert on hypothermia, Gord Giesbrecht, who said he'd never heard of such a thing as fan death. "It's hard to imagine because to die of hypothermia, [one's body temperature] would have to get down to 28, drop by 10 degrees overnight," he said. "We've got people lying in snowbanks overnight here in Winnipeg and they survive."​

Some fan death believers say hypothermia isn't the real culprit anyway. One theory holds that the fan creates a "vacuum" around the face, suffocating the victim. Another holds that running a fan or air conditioner in a closed room causes a build-up of carbon dioxide, also suffocating the victim. Both of these explanations smack of pseudoscience.

It should be stated that South Korea isn't the only country with health-related urban legends. Ask most Americans, for example, and they will earnestly tell you that if you swallow chewing gum it will stay in your stomach for seven years (if not for the rest of your life) and that sitting too close to a television set will ruin your eyesight. Neither of these is true, but on the other hand, no one believes doing these things will kill you, either.

The Only "Cure" for Fan Death Is Science​

Though recent news coverage reveals a slight upsurge in public skepticism about fan death, the belief still seems to be widely entrenched in Korean culture. Severance Hospital's John Linton has called for a medical task force to conduct autopsies in fatalities attributed to electric fans to determine the true causes of death. This seems like the best approach -- indeed, the only approach to take -- if the scourge of "fan death" is to be eradicated in South Korea once and for all.

Sources and Further Reading

Urban Legend: That Fan Could Be the Death of You
The Star, 19 August 2008

Electric Fans and South Koreans: A Deadly Mix?
Reuters, 9 July 2007

The Cool Chill of Death, 14 July 2006

Newspapers Fan Belief in Urban Myth​
JoongAng Daily, 22 September 2004

Will Sleeping in a Closed Room with an Electric Fan Cause Death?
The Straight Dope, 12 September 1997

Last updated: 09/27/15