How an MRI installation disabled iPhones at an Illinois facility

In early October, some staff at an Illinois medical facility unexpectedly lost functionality of their Apple devices, including iPhones and Apple Watches. The culprit? A recent MRI installation.

The incident captured national headlines after a system administrator at the medical facility — part of Morris (Ill.) Hospital & Healthcare Centers — sought advice on online discussion board Reddit.

"This is probably the most bizarre issue I've had in my career in IT," his post reads. "We received a call near the end of the day from the campus stating that none of their cell phones worked after testing the new MRI … After going out there we discovered that this issue only impacted iOS devices."

"It doesn't surprise me that a massive, powerful, superconducting electromagnet is capable of doing this. What surprises me is that it is only affecting Apple products," the poster continued. "GE claims that the helium is what impacts the iOS devices, which makes absolutely no sense to me. I know liquid helium is used as a coolant for the superconducting magnets, but why would it only affect Apple devices?"

The poster said staff had reported about 40 disabled devices, all of which were Apple products, while Androids and other computer equipment still worked.

"The behavior of the devices was pretty odd," the poster wrote, noting almost all of the affected Apple devices would need to be replaced. "Most of them were completely dead. I plugged them into the wall and had no indication that the device was charging."

Hospital staff investigated and determined the issue was likely related to the release of helium during a recent MRI installation at the facility, a Morris spokesperson told Becker's Hospital Review via email.

When setting up an MRI, installers use evaporated helium to supercool the magnet inside the device, according to Motherboard. The helium should be directed out of the facility through a vent, but a leak allowed the chemical to enter other areas of the building. The system administrator said about 120 liters of liquid were vented, and it's unclearly how much leaked into other rooms of the facility.

Helium, it turns out, can ruin the microelectromechanical systems silicon chips that are used in many smartphones, according to a post on the repair blog iFixit. Helium proves especially harmful for iOS devices, since Apple recently opted to create its frequency generators, known as clocks, using microelectromechanical systems silicon.

"Now, these frequency generators are at the heart of every electronic device," according to iFixit. "Without a clock, the system stands still. The [central processing unit] flat-out doesn't work. The clock is literally the heartbeat of a modern device."

Motherboard said the experience shared on Reddit wouldn't be a surprise to Apple, which warns about exposure to "high concentrations of industrial chemicals," such as "near evaporating liquified gasses such as helium," in the iPhone's manual.

To address the issue, Morris officials conducted several rounds of air-quality tests. The Morris spokesperson said there have been no more reports of device outages at the facility since confirming normal oxygen levels.

"Air-quality testing was immediately conducted, which confirmed normal oxygen levels," the spokesperson wrote in her email. "Oxygen levels were tested again the next day, and as a further precaution, a helium leak detector test was conducted on the second day, which confirmed normal levels of helium."

She added the hospital "worked directly with impacted employees to mitigate any loss of device functionality that occurred."

"It would be premature at this time to give advice to other hospitals as our investigation continues," she added, in response to a question from Becker's Hospital Review. "What's most important is that the situation resolved quickly, air-quality testing indicates there was never a health or safety issue, and there have been no additional reports of device outages."

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