Mythbusters: do electric fans cause hypothermia

Our resident mythbuster Jack Coles blows this chilling myth out of the water

8th May 2017

OK, let’s have a bit of background on me, mostly because it’s relevant (for once). I used to live in southern Spain, and during the summer it would get really, stupidly hot. The fact that our house trapped heat well was a problem, and usually meant that I’d be going to bed in 25°C temperatures. Not exactly comfortable for an eight-year-old. Whenever it was too hot, I would borrow the fan from dad’s office and set it up by my bed, and go to sleep with it running.

The fact that I am still alive and capable of typing these words without using a Ouija board attest to the fact that modern electric fans do not kill you in your sleep. Admittedly, it dehydrated me quite a bit, to the stage where I’d sometimes wake up and have to chug a litre of water. But still, not dead.

The origins of this myth come from 1970s South Korea, where someone allegedly died in their sleep while having a running fan in their room. Conspiracy theorists suggest that this story was manufactured by the government in order to decrease electricity use. Then again, conspiracy theorists suggest things like the World Trade Centre was a hologram, so maybe best not think about these things too much.

Before this, there were a couple of instances of “fan death” in the 1930s, back when Korea was under Japanese control. The gist of the story was that one drunkard died in front of a running fan, and the authorities or the press connected the two without taking any time to actually figure out the real cause of death. Even as early as 1927 there were warnings on fans causing a shortness of breath due to a lack of oxygen.

“The real nail in the coffin for the concept of fan death is that South Korea is the only country where this belief is widespread”

Having said that, fans cannot possibly kill you from oxygen starvation because they do not consume oxygen, unless you’re burning coal to run it, which would be utterly pointless for cooling down. Even if you’re in a hermetically sealed room, the fan will actually help prevent oxygen starvation by speeding up diffusion of gases. While it will cool you down by evaporating your sweat, it will actually increase the temperature of the room by a small amount from the friction between moving parts and from heat generated in the motor.

The real nail in the coffin for the concept of fan death is that South Korea is the only country where this belief is widespread; no-one in Spain ever questioned my choice of using a fan at night, because a lot of people also did it. You also never seem to hear of fan death rumours in other hot countries, like India, Mexico, or Hell.

Besides, it hailed today (at time of writing) and I’m wearing a jumper, despite it being late April. So while I could accidentally kill myself with hypothermia induced by a fan, I don’t think its going to happen any time soon. It’s simply too cold. I’m going to warm myself up using this paraffin lamp in a poorly ventilated room instead.

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