Electric fans and South Koreans: a deadly mix?

SEOUL, July 9 (Reuters Life!) - Electric fans and Koreans are a deadly combination, according to a local urban legend that says if a person sleeps in a closed room with a fan on all night they may never wake up.

A man lies next to an electric fan in his home in Seoul July 4, 2007. Summertime in South Korea means cold beer on steamy nights and lonely deaths in stuffy rooms blamed on electic fans. Electric fans and Koreans are a deadly combination, according to an urban legend in the country that has it if a person sleeps in a closed room with a fan on all night they may never wake up. REUTERS/Han Jae-Ho

Doctors and researchers say that is a lot of hot air and that there is no scientific evidence to support the idea.

But that has not stopped the local media, fan manufacturers, government agencies and even some health practitioners from telling people they are putting their lives at risk by running the appliance at night in summer.

“When the steamy heat of summer arrives, dying from suffocation (or hypothermia) happens every year because of fans,” the government’s Korea Consumer Agency said. It estimates that about seven to 10 people a year perish by “fan death”.

South Korea’s biggest fan maker Shinil Industrial Co. issues warnings with their products telling customers to keep fans pointed away from humans at night. “This product may cause suffocation or hypothermia,” the warning reads.

Local media has already reported on the first case of “fan death” this summer, who happened to be a man in his 40s. He was found dead in a small motel room when he fell asleep in front of a fan after a night of heavy drinking, local TV networks said.

And the myth spread to other parts of Asia.

One reason for blaming deaths of this sort on fans may be due to lazy investigators, said Seoul National University Hospital professor Yoo Tai-woo.

“People believe in fan death because -- one -- they see a dead body and -- two -- a fan running,” Yoo said. “But normal, healthy people do not die because they slept with a fan running.”


According to the major daily JoongAng Ilbo, their first report of fan death came in the early 1970s, as a developing South Korea tried to manage in the face of higher energy prices.

A few people have speculated that the authoritarian government at that time, eager to cut back on electricity use, deliberately discouraged people from running fans at night.

Popular theories behind fan death include fans causing a chemical change in the air; fans generating a vortex of air that prevents breathing and that prolonged exposure to a breeze when the metabolism slows down at night can lead to hypothermia.

Experts say running a fan in the summer would not cause any of the above health threats, especially hypothermia.

“I cannot imagine circumstances inside a room kept at temperatures above 10 Celsius (50 F) or so where having a fan on could compromise thermo-regulation in a healthy person in bed,” Brian Barnes, director of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Arctic Biology, said via e-mail.

But South Koreans remain unconvinced. Many people make sure their fan is on a timer, that it is facing a wall and that a window or door is open.

Arctic biologist Barnes also offers some advice.

“Opening a window, however, is always a good idea in my opinion, as it lets fresh air in and decreases house moisture.”

Additional reporting by Jessica Kim