June 4, 2016

Fan Death: The Unsuspected Perils of a Hot Night in Korea

A drawing of an electric fan in red, with horns on either side like a devil's headEvery country has cultural myths that are accepted as unquestionable truths, even though they sound ludicrous to outsiders. Korea is no exception. Meet fan death (선풍기 – electric fan, 사망설 – death). According to this widespread Korean belief, spending the night in a closed room with a fan blowing on you can be fatal.

People from anywhere else will never have heard of this notion. Could it possibly be true, yet somehow every other country in the world has overlooked it? Korea does have an extreme and somewhat atypical climate that encompasses both ultra-humid monsoon summers and snowy winters.

Experts say the popular explanations for death by fan are not medically founded. The Ask a Korean blog makes a valiant argument on behalf of fans as a contributing factor to deaths under highly specific and theoretical conditions. However, I’m going with snopes and Wikipedia on this one: There is no scientific basis for fan death.

What makes fan death more interesting than other cultural myths is that it’s regarded as factual by Korean fan manufacturers, news media and even government agencies. Korean fans bear warning labels, urging users to crack a window at bedtime. They are equipped with sleep timers, a safety precaution in case you forget. Fatalities with no other obvious cause are reported in the news in utter seriousness as death by fan.

A drawing of an open window with a crossed circled NOT symbol across itThe snopes exploration of fan death mentions that it sometimes encompasses air conditioning as well, so that Koreans are encouraged to open a window or door while air conditioning. DON’T DO THIS, PEOPLE, WHEREVER YOU ARE! Your air conditioner was not designed to cool the entire great outdoors!

Homo sapiens sapiens
(saying it twice doesn’t make it any truer)

While fan death may sound absurd in the U.S., we have our own cooling-related fallacies. I grew up in a region with consistently hot summers, day and night. The knowledge that running an air conditioner with doors or windows open is expensive and ineffective is passed down from generation to generation (mostly by parents yelling at kids to shut the door).

However, where I live now, heat waves are infrequent. The resulting lack of experience is fertile ground for air conditioning myths. Summer temperatures are usually mild, and insects aren’t a big problem, so it’s common for small shop-owners to prop their doors open. This has evolved into a widespread belief that their shop doors MUST be open, even on blazing hot days when air conditioning is on, or people won’t come in.

Never mind that there are lights on, people inside, and an OPEN sign on the door. Never mind that customers visit all winter despite closed doors. Never mind that the open door turns their shop into an oven, where no one cares to linger, and runs up their electric bill astronomically for nothing. The retailers cling to their conviction that a closed shop door reduces sales with evangelical fervor. Pity their poor employees!

A closeup of August Rodin's statue, The Thinker, of a man resting his chin on his hand while pondering somethingI have argued this point with shop owners who have engineering degrees and ought to know better, to no avail. “Sapiens,” which appears not once, but twice, in the name of our noble species, translates as “capable of discerning.” But just because we can discern doesn’t mean we do. The biggest myth of all may be that humans (anywhere) are rational!

Hook, line and sinker

Getting back to fan death, you may be thinking Koreans must be pretty gullible to believe in something like that, when there isn’t a single documented case of it ever having occurred. We would never fall for an unsubstantiated folk belief that there was a dire risk to something we see people do all the time without ill effects. Would we?

Before I answer that, shall we discuss the relationship between eating meals and drowning from cramps while swimming?

There is no relationship, as it turns out. Nevertheless, generations of people (including me) were raised to accept as absolute scientific fact that we could die if we ate a meal and immediately went swimming. The designated waiting time for safety ranged from half an hour to 3 hours.

There was an explanation for this precaution that involved blood flow from arms and legs to stomach during digestion. It didn’t totally make sense, since we rarely (if ever) experienced incapacitating cramps from landbound exercise right after eating.

But if we doubted for a moment, we soon remembered that people who knew more about that stuff said it was true, so who were we to question? I’m sure you can still find parents, teachers, coaches and lifeguards enforcing a waiting period at beaches and poolsides around the world.

In fact, there is probably someone reading this post right now who is asking, “Wait, you mean that isn’t true?!” Someone who may look it up and find many respected sources confirming that it is perfectly OK to swim right after a meal. Someone who will keep on waiting at least a little while, just to be on the safe side.

Eventually, fan death warnings will probably silently disappear from Korean fans. But I hope they will keep making fans with timers. That’s actually a pretty good idea.

6 comments to Fan Death: The Unsuspected Perils of a Hot Night in Korea

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>