Across the United States, there are close to 500 fertility clinics and each one houses fragile, priceless material: frozen eggs and embryos, the very start of life itself.
Despite state-of-the-art freezers and storage systems at these clinics, there are no guarantees. Fertility clinic freezers can – and do – fail sometimes. And if these freezer failures aren’t caught in time with a temperature alert system, the consequences are devastating for all involved.
Not only is the loss of frozen embryos and eggs heart-breaking for families, but clinics and storage tank makers can also face significant financial and legal repercussions for the losses.
A Tale of Two Egg-Freezing Failures
In March 2018, two fertility clinics on opposite sides of the U.S. experienced freezer tank failures.
At the University Hospitals Fertility Center in Cleveland, Ohio, a freezer tank malfunction led to the loss of 4,000 frozen eggs and embryos. Nearly 1,000 families were impacted by the loss.
That same weekend, a liquid nitrogen tank at the Pacific Fertility Center in San Francisco, California also failed. More than 3,500 frozen human embryos and eggs were rendered unviable.
While these two incidents were unrelated, the parallels are unmistakable.
In both cases, the LN2 storage tanks malfunctioned. These freezers use liquid nitrogen to store samples at the extremely low temperatures required for long-term preservation.
And in both cases, the problem wasn’t just that the freezers failed. More importantly, neither facility had a temperature monitoring system in place that was working at the time to alert the lab to the problem in time to rectify it.
The Emotional Toll
In cases like these with the loss of embryos and eggs, the biggest toll is on the families. For many, a freezer failure that’s not caught this time destroys the possibility of having biological children.
Many of those families spoke out about their heartache to the media at the time.
“The rest of the world looks at it as eggs and embryos, but we look at it as our future children,” one woman told CNN.
She and her husband froze five embryos after being diagnosed with uterine cancer. She later underwent a hysterectomy, making her loss irreplaceable.
Other couples expressed similar sentiments.
“Our future family that was there last week is gone, in a moment,” said another woman, also quoted by CNN.
Just one fertility freezer failure can devastate hundreds of families.
Legal & Financial Repercussions For Fertility Clinics: Lawsuits
Fertility clinics don’t just face heightened scrutiny about their safety precautions and protocol when fertility storage failures like the ones in California and Ohio happen. Those clinics are held legally responsible for the losses.
Both University Hospitals Fertility Center and Pacific Fertility Center ended up in court responding to lawsuits from the families.
And with those lawsuits come significant financial costs. More than 150 families have settled lawsuits against University Hospitals, although the settlement amounts were not made public. More lawsuits are still pending.
Last year, five families who lost embryos from the Pacific Fertility Center were awarded a total of $15 million. In this instance, both the clinic and the manufacturer of the storage tanks were found liable.
These high-profile cases have prompted public discussions about the need for greater regulation of the fertility industry and holding clinics responsible.
What Can Fertility Clinics Do to Mitigate Risk of Freezer Failure
The freezer malfunctions in both Ohio and California illustrate just how crucial reliable temperature alert systems are.
Comprehensive and real-time monitoring of the temperature – either inside the tank as the liquid nitrogen evaporates or direct measurement of the LN2 levels – allows clinic personnel to be notified of potential problems before they become critical. This means the freezer failure can be fixed, and at-risk samples rescued, before the potential for loss becomes a reality.
It’s not enough to just rely on the temperature monitoring within the freezers themselves. For specimens as priceless as frozen embryos, a back-up system is a must.
The freezers at University Hospitals had a monitoring system but it had been turned off and the staff was not notified that the system was no longer functioning.
Likewise, the freezers that Pacific Fertility Center used did come with a temperature controller, but it wasn’t working at the time of the failure.
In that case, the courts found the storage tank maker, Chart Industries, partially responsible for knowing about the temperature monitoring defect and not warning the clinic. Chart argued that employees at the clinic had unplugged the controller. Regardless, a backup temperate alert system would have picked up on the problem in time to save the embryos and eggs.
The demand for IVF is only growing year over year as more families turn to fertility clinics. Without adequate measures in place, freezer failures will continue to pose significant risks to those families and the clinics.
Learn more about how the CORIS temperature monitoring system is a safety net for proper healthcare temperature monitoring, including for fertility clinics.
Please don’t hesitate to contact us for more information.