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Fatal MRI Accident Is First of Its Kind

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Chaljub says that MRI suites typically post large warning signs telling of the dangers of metal objects near the machine. The powerful magnets used by MRIs "are on all the time so it is not a question of flipping the magnet on and off. Anytime an object comes into the magnet's field it can become dangerous."

The nurse who carried the oxygen canister into the room where Colombini was being scanned mistakenly believed the canister was made of a nonmagnetic material, like aluminum. Chaljub says that accidents often happen when nonmagnetic and magnetic canisters get mixed up, and he recommends putting special markings on aluminum canisters to indicate that they are safe. He also recommends the use of security entrance systems -- such as the use of special computer codes to unlock the doors to MRI suites.

Shellock and Chaljub both say that implants in the body pose a greater danger for MRI accidents than do potential projectiles. For example, Chaljub says that a woman who had an aneurysm clip in her brain died after undergoing an MRI and "a welder who had a piece of metal imbedded in his eye was blinded in that eye."

"The real problem is implants, pacemakers, or pins [in joints] that can get dislodged by the pull or the magnet or monitoring devices that heat up and burn the patient," says Shellock.

Mark Golden, a public relations consultant with Newman Communications in Boston, Mass., knows first-hand about the risks associated with MRIs. Golden has ongoing low-back pain and three years ago he was scheduled for an MRI evaluation. "They asked me if I ever had any broken bones or if I had had heart surgery," Golden tells WebMD. "But their questions never went above the neck," says Golden, who has a shunt in his brain.

But at the last minute Golden says that he backed out of the MRI because "I have claustrophobia, and I just couldn't do it."

About six months ago he found himself again scheduled for an MRI because of continuing back problems. He decided to grit his teeth and try to overcome his claustrophobia. "But first they asked me some questions, including one about brain surgery. When I told them I had a shunt, they said no MRI for me," says Golden. He says he asked the MRI technicians what would happen to him if he underwent MRI scanning and "they said the magnet would heat up my shunt and possibly explode my head."

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