Newspapers fan belief in urban mythAnother stiflingly hot summer has come and gone in Korea, and with it, the risk of dying by electric fan.
If you’ve never heard of death by electric fan, you’re probably not from here. Every summer, mainstream Korean newspapers carry reports of people dying after sleeping in a room with the electric fan on and the doors and windows closed.
A search of the JoongAng Ilbo’s archives reveals stories about fan death dating back to the early 1970s. A July 9, 1973, story describes how a 20-year-old man was found dead in the morning after going to sleep with two fans turned on and the room’s windows and door shut. The story also describes a mysterious jar of chemicals found in the room but does not explain what it was.
A wider search of Korean newspapers shows that each summer from 1990 to 2004, about 10 stories related to someone dying in the presence of an electric fan were published. Some of the deaths were chalked up to electrical failure of the fan and related fires, but many of them said the victims died from suffocation or hypothermia because the windows and doors were closed.
The debate rages on Internet bulletin boards frequented by confused English teachers and other foreigners who have been warned by Korean friends about the hazards of fans. On one message board, a writer, whose nationality is unknown, postulates that because Korean buildings are built primarily from concrete, oxygen is not easily diffused from small rooms. Others say some fans create an air current that seals the room, driving oxygen to the ceiling and carbon dioxide toward the floor, suffocating the person inside.
In an e-mail interview with the IHT-JoongAng Daily, Dr. Yeon Dong-su, dean of Kwandong University’s medical school, who has investigated some cases of “fan deaths,” refuted some of the wilder theories but insisted fan deaths do occur.
“Many people say that these victims die from lack of oxygen, but that is not true,” Dr. Yeon wrote. “Hypothermia does not only occur in the winter when it is cold. The symptoms can also take place if a person has been drinking and turns on a fan in a closed room. Most people wake up when they feel cold, but if you are drunk you will not wake up, even if your body temperature drops below 35 degrees Celsius (95 F), at which point you can die from hypothermia.
“It doesn’t matter so much about the temperature of the room,” he continued. “If it is completely sealed, then in the current of an electric fan, the temperature can drop low enough to cause a person to die of hypothermia.”
Gord Giesbrecht, a physical education professor at the University of Manitoba in Canada, is a leading expert on hypothermia. He said he has never heard of fan death or anything like it.
“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. We’ve got people lying in snowbanks overnight here in Winnipeg and they survive,” he said.
Is it possible to get hypothermia from a fan? “Maybe if someone was elderly and they were sitting there for three days,” he said. “Someone is not going to die from hypothermia because their body temperature drops two or three degrees overnight; it would have to drop eight to 10 degrees.”
He added that the only way to verify whether someone had really died of hypothermia during the night would be to take a core body temperature the following morning. Waiting three days while the body was in the morgue wouldn’t work because the corpse’s temperature can drop during that time, he said.
Many in Seoul’s foreign community are also skeptical. Dr. John Linton at Yonsei’s Severance Hospital, who attended medical school at the university, is the only non-Korean licensed to practice medicine in the nation.
“There are several things that could be causing the fan deaths, things like pulmonary embolisms, cerebral vascular accidents or arrhythmia,” said Dr. Linton. “There is little scientific evidence to support that a fan alone can kill you if 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.”
What is especially important, he said, is the need for autopsies when an unusual death occurs. “There should be a task force set up to look into these fan deaths, and explain them,” he said.
So if there’s minimal scientific evidence to back the theory behind electric fan deaths, then why does the urban myth persist in Korea?
Dr. Lee Yoon-song is a professor at Seoul National University’s medical school and works with the school’s Institute of Scientific Investigation. He has conducted autopsies on some of the people who have been described in Korean media as having succumbed to fan death.
“When someone’s body temperature drops below 35 degrees, they do start to lose judgment ability,” he said. “So if someone was hiking and later found dead, that could be part of the reason. But we can’t really apply this to fan accidents. I found most of the victims already had some sort of disease like heart problems or serious alcoholism. So hypothermia is not the main reason for death, but it may contribute.”
Dr. Lee blamed the Korean media for the persistence of the urban myth. “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],” Dr. Lee said. “If a Western doctor investigated these deaths, he would say what really caused the death, and say that a fan was beside the victim.”
Ken Kaliher would agree. He has lived in Korea for 33 years, since he first came with the Peace Corps. A collector of off-the-wall news stories, he heard about fan deaths when he first arrived in Korea. But he’s never heard of them in any of the many countries he’s visited, he said.
“If a story appears in the newspaper, it generally won’t get a skeptical response from Koreans,” Mr. Kaliher said. “Koreans also tend to believe anything a doctor tells them. They don’t usually ask doctors questions.”
Ms. Noh, a 20-something who works in the Seoul Metropolitan Education Office, said she learned about fan death from the articles she read every summer. “It’s not something we’re scared of, but we do think it’s weird or abnormal.”
Did she ever have a brush with fan death?
“I tried it once, and nothing happened,” she said, laughing. “But maybe it’s because I had a small fan.”
by Grant Surridge