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MRI Explosion Threat Forces Evacuations

January 10, 2011
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Fear that an MRI machine damaged in a New Year’s Eve tornado might explode caused a major street to be closed and nine families to be evacuated for about 13 hours overnight last week in a St. Louis suburb.

The machine was at SSM Imaging on Lindbergh Boulevard in Sunset Hills, Missouri. The building had been closed since November 3 because employees and equipment were being moved to another facility nearby in Fenton, Missouri. The tornado severely damaged the building, including the MRI ventilation system.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch quoted a local fire chief as saying that workers dismantling the machine realized the potential for explosion last Thursday. A portion of Lindbergh Boulevard was closed and the nine families were evacuated Thursday night.

The street was reopened and the families allowed to return by midday Friday after workers vented the helium from the machine and engineers for GE, the manufacturer, determined that the magnet was stable.

The explosion worries focused on the highly pressurized liquid helium used to cool the MRI magnet. Because the ventilation system had been damaged, there was a slight possibility that the helium pressure could build to the point of an explosion.

DOTmed News contacted Larry Knight, president of Altima Diagnostic Imaging Solutions LLC, an MRI and CT service company, who said the possibility was remote. “It would take a lot of bad events in a perfect sequence to get a magnet to a point where it would explode, or even blow off a turret cap,” he said.

However, it has happened. In 2006, a Maryland TV news crew captured such an explosion at Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Salisbury, Maryland. Like almost everything else that has happened in the past decade, it can be seen on YouTube.

Flesh & Stone, a health and science news site, reported in 2008 that University of Alabama at Birmingham Professor Wlad Sobol, PhD, who teaches a course in MRI physics for radiology residents, had learned of at least five MRI explosions over the previous 10 years. One occurred in January 2007 at a UAB partner institution, demolishing the MRI suite and damaging the building’s exterior walls and roof. Fortunately, it happened during the middle of the night, and no one was injured.

Other explosive incidents occurred in 2006 at an outpatient imaging facility in Kennesaw, Georgia, and in 2006 at a hospital in Mobile, Alabama.

Reporting of such incidents is voluntary, and apparently no government agency keeps track of them. Obviously, neither the institutions involved nor the manufacturers publicize them.

Related seminar: Musculoskeletal MRI


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