There have been several recent disturbing reports of iPhones (and some other Apple devices) being wiped out by MRI units.
The story began with a blog on Reddit (u/harritaco 2018a) that said:
“One of our multi-practice facilities is having a new MRI installed and apparently something went wrong when testing the new machine. 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. My immediate thought was that the MRI must have emitted some sort of EMP, in which case we could be in a lot of trouble. We're still waiting to hear back from GE as to what happened. This facility is our DR site so my boss and the CTO were freaking out and sent one of us out there to make sure the data center was fully operational. After going out there we discovered that this issue only impacted iOS devices. iPads, iPhones, and Apple Watches were all completely disabled (or destroyed?). Every one of our assets was completely fine. It doesn't surprise me that a massive, powerful, super-conducting electromagnet is capable of doing this. What surprises me is that it is only effecting Apple products. Right now we have about 40 users impacted by this, all of which will be getting shiny new devices tonight. GE claims that the helium is what impacts the iOS devices which makes absolutely no sense to me.”
The issue only impacted iOS devices. Desktops, laptops, general healthcare equipment, and a datacenter were not affected, nor were the many Android phones in the facility at the time. And the Apple models affected were iPhone 6 and higher and Apple Watch series 0 and higher. Some of the devices eventually regained some function over time.
He initially suspected it may have been an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) generated by the MRI machine but, after the posting on Reddit, some others posted and speculated that it might be caused by the liquid helium used to cool the MRI machine. Further investigation revealed that there, indeed, had been release of helium.
He went on to do an experiment (u/harritaco 2018b) where he placed an iPhone 8+ in a sealed bag filled with some helium. After a little more than 8 minutes, the iPhone locked up. After several days it did return to a functioning state.
In an analysis of the event, Wiens (Wiens 2018) notes that the iPhone user guide says “Exposing iPhone to environments having high concentrations of industrial chemicals, including near evaporating liquified gasses such as helium, may damage or impair iPhone functionality. … If your device has been affected and shows signs of not powering on, the device can typically be recovered. Leave the unit unconnected from a charging cable and let it air out for approximately one week. The helium must fully dissipate from the device, and the device battery should fully discharge in the process. After a week, plug your device directly into a power adapter and let it charge for up to one hour. Then the device can be turned on again.” Apparently, the helium inhibits the clock/oscillator that is critical for the iPhone to function.
Since only the newer Apple products were affected, it was postulated that it could be related to Apple's recent switch from quartz components to parts called microelectromechanical system (MEMS) timing oscillators (Casey 2018a).
But the case gets more complicated. Multiple late-model Apple iPhones and Apple Watches were permanently disabled at a Delaware center after it ramped down its MRI magnet (Casey 2018b). Only newer-model Apple products such as the iPhone 8 and iPhone 10 were affected. Those with older models didn't experience any problems, nor did staff with Android phones. Unlike the prior case and though the magnet was ramped down and then back up again, there apparently was no helium release in the Delaware case. Furthermore, whereas many of the devices recovered with time in the prior case, none of the Delaware devices recovered. And, in the Delaware case it was only newer models that had wireless charging capability (hence, no iPhone 6’s) that were affected.
Though some might think the moral of the story is “don’t take your new iPhone or Apple watch near an MRI unit that is being installed or ramped down and up again”, there may also be some patient safety implications. The newer Apple watches are being touted for their ability to record EKG’s and capture bouts of arrhythmias like atrial fibrillation. Such ability could obviously become impaired if the watch fails to function. But, of even more concern, is that we might anticipate future medical equipment and devices might begin to employ microtechnologies like those mentioned above and become susceptible to the same fate as the iOS devices.
So, add this to your list of what can go wrong in the Radiology or MRI suite!
u/harritaco. MRI disabled every iOS device in facility. Reddit 2018; October 8, 2018
u/harritaco. Post-mortem: MRI disables every iOS device in facility. Reddit 2018; October 29, 2018
Wiens K. iPhones are Allergic to Helium. IFIXIT.org 2018; October 30, 2018
Casey B. Did MRI helium leak take out hospital's iPhones? AuntMinnie.com 2018; October 31, 2018
Casey B. 2nd MRI center reports problems with Apple devices. AuntMinnie.com 2018; November 1, 2018