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Exploding Airbags May Be Linked to Chemical Propellant Used by Takata

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Problems with exploding airbags that have led to the recall of nearly 8 million vehicles may be linked to the use of an unusual propellant designed inflate the airbags in the event of a crash. 

Auto industry insiders suggest that a chemical called aluminum nitrate may be a prime suspect in the recent Takata airbag problems, which have resulted in at least four deaths and a number of injuries when the airbags over-inflated and caused shrapnel or other debris enter the passenger compartment.

Almost every major auto manufacturer has been forced to recall cars equipped with Takata airbags, though Honda has taken the brunt of the recalls and all of the deaths have occurred in Honda vehicles.

Auto industry officials told Bloomberg News this week that Takata is the only company that uses aluminum nitrate as a propellant.

While the gas is efficient at suddenly inflating airbags in the speed needed to respond to an impact, sources suggest that it also reacts badly to moisture, which may increase the power of the chemical reaction, especially in humid areas where most of the Takata airbag explosions have been reported.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) launched a campaign last week to raise awareness about the risk of failing to replace the defect device for those who have a vehicle with recalled airbags, especially for those living in Florida, Puerto Rico, those near the Gulf of Mexico in Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, and also Guam, Saipan, American Samoa, the Virgin Islands and Hawaii.

Problems Began With Move to Mexico

The problems also appear to have begun after the company moved its production facility out of the United States to a plant in Monclova, Mexico, which has been plagued with defects and at least one plant explosion .

On Monday, Takata Corp. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Shigehisa Takada, whose grandfather founded the company in the 1930s, apologized for the concerns raised by the defective airbags.

“We deeply regret that the recent recalls of vehicles equipped with our airbags have likely raised significant concerns and troubles to our product users, our customers, shareholders and other stakeholders,” Takada said. “We sincerely apologize for causing any such concerns and troubles.”

The company has put aside up to $28 million dollars to pay for the recalls, in addition to the $70 million it has already spent. The NHTSA probe is ongoing, and it is unclear how many more vehicles will be affected by Takata airbag recalls.

NHTSA Under Scrutiny

The NHTSA itself is under investigation by the Obama administration, which has asked the Transportation Department to look into the agency’s response to the Takata airbag explosions.

The controversy comes in a year with record numbers of auto recalls, and the NHTSA has already been accused of dropping the ball earlier this year on General Motors ignition switches. During an investigation into GM’s actions, it was discovered that NHTSA engineers repeatedly warned their superiors that there was a problem for several years but could not get them to act.

GM ignition switch problems, which disable the vehicles’ airbags when the ignition is jarred, have been linked to at least 30 deaths, and another 150 families claim they lost loved ones due to the switches in filings submitted to a GM settlement fund.

Lawmakers have criticized the NHTSA for not following up on its own engineers’ concerns over GM ignition switches, and say the agency has been too slow and too complacent in warning vehicle owners about the potential dangers of defective airbags.

NHTSA Warnings About Airbag Explosions

This month, the NHTSA began a campaign to warn drivers of affected vehicles about the risks of Takata airbags, urging owners to seek immediate repairs. The majority of the Takata airbag recalls were announced in June 2014, but there have also been recalls involving the same explosion problems announced periodically over the last two years.

Even when the NHTSA issued an advisory, it had to go back and correct itself because it listed the wrong auto manufacturers and models. Then, the website went down because it could not handle the amount of traffic from concerned and confused consumers.

“Drivers are being told they need to fix their cars immediately, yet they are directed to a website that isn’t working properly and are being told by dealers that they don’t have working parts,” said Representative Fred Upton (MI), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in a statement. “Drivers are rightly confused and panicked.”

There are also questions about whether the NHTSA probe is wide enough. The agency is currently investigating Takata airbags installed in vehicles made between 2000 and 2007. However, documents have surfaced indicating that the problem may stretch into later models, affecting cars manufactured as recently as 2011. Internal emails show Takata executives chastised its Montclova, Mexico manufacturing plant after a defective weld was discovered in a Takata air bag that made it from the parts supplier all the way to the manufacturer.

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