Takata Truck Blast Revives Concerns Over Airbag Propellant

Updated on
  • Instability of ammonium nitrate highlighted in explosion
  • Takata has said it followed procedures that exceed U.S. rules

Critics of the embattled airbag manufacturer Takata Corp. said last week’s deadly explosion of a truck carrying parts to its Mexican factory underscores questions about the safety of the chemical compound at the center of the largest automotive recall in U.S. history.

Senators Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said the  National Transportation Safety Board should look into the Aug. 22 explosion, which killed one and injured four others on U.S. Highway 277 between Del Rio, Texas and Eagle Pass, Texas. The truck was carrying 14,000 cylinders of ammonium nitrate, the propellant linked to deadly airbag failures.

The incident raises questions about the inherent instability of ammonium nitrate, they said.

“We already know Takata has endangered millions behind the wheel,” Democrats Markey and Blumenthal said in a statement Wednesday. “The recent tragedy in Texas raises questions about how many millions more are in harm’s way because of Takata’s practices transporting its hazardous product.”

The Texas explosion created a blast crater and blew out windows in houses two miles away. A woman in a nearby house killed by the explosion had to be identified by teeth found at the site.

Ammonium Nitrate

On Wednesday, the NTSB said it had requested shipping and other documents in connection with the Texas explosion, which it said was caused after the truck failed to negotiate a curve and crashed into a house.

“Initial indicators are that the materials were packaged properly,” NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said in an e-mail. “If the review of documents and other information shows cause to investigate, the NTSB will do so.”

The safety board also will assist if Texas state officials investigating the crash ask for help, Weiss said.

The Texas incident recalled a series of explosions at a TRW Inc. airbag inflator plant in the 1980s and 1990s that involved a different chemical compound, said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington watchdog group. The Takata blast raises serious questions about the safety of transporting ammonium nitrate by truck across the country as tens of millions of recalled airbags are replaced, he said.

“This incident shows there’s a need to get completely away from ammonium nitrate,” Ditlow said. “Takata’s choice of ammonium nitrate was one of the biggest engineering mistakes in automotive history. Why are they still using it?”

Complex Recall

Almost 70 million Takata airbag inflators are scheduled for replacement between now and 2019, the largest and most complex auto-safety recall in U.S. history. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has identified a combination of time, exposure to moisture and fluctuating high temperatures as the highest risks in making ammonium nitrate unstable. When Takata inflators have exploded with too much force, drivers have been killed by shrapnel.

Many of the replacement Takata inflators also rely on ammonium nitrate, which other airbag manufacturers have avoided using due to safety questions. NHTSA concluded that airbags with the compound were safe if they also used a drying agent.

All ammonium nitrate inflators without a drying agent are either being recalled or will be recalled in the future, NHTSA spokesman Bryan Thomas said. Takata has been banned from entering into new contracts to produce that kind of airbag inflator, he said.

The ammonium nitrate inflators that incorporate a drying agent are under study, and Takata has until 2019 to demonstrate they’re safe. If not, those airbags will also be recalled and phased out, Thomas said.

Track Record

Some of the replacement inflators in the current recalls will eventually be recalled a second time when a permanent fix is designed, Thomas said. The temporary replacement inflators are deemed safe for the time being because it takes years for ammonium nitrate to degrade enough to present a risk, he said.

Takata has a “terrible track record of cutting corners to put profits before safety” and lying to federal regulators, the senators said. Markey and Blumenthal asked Takata to recall all vehicles with ammonium nitrate-based airbags in August 2015 and have repeatedly expressed concern about the pace of the national airbag recall.

Takata spokesman Jared Levy declined to comment. The Tokyo-based company has said it followed safety procedures that met or exceeded regulatory requirements, and it doesn’t expect the accident to affect its ability to meet commitments made to customers.

Manufacturing History

Takata’s history of flawed manufacturing of airbag inflators goes back decades and has been well-documented, said Sean Kane, president of Safety Research and Strategies Inc., a Rehoboth, Massachusetts-based firm that works on product-liability lawsuits.

“You’ve got a company that couldn’t make them right even under the best circumstances,” Kane said. “All of a sudden, now that they’re under the gun, we’re expecting them to build them perfectly and ship them perfectly?”

The U.S. Transportation Department said Monday it was looking at whether the trucking company Takata contracted to carry its airbag chemicals complied with federal safety regulations, including how the cargo was handled and packaged, and the route the truck took.

The Texas Department of Public Safety is investigating the explosion, said spokesman Lieutenant Juan Hernandez. There’s no specific timetable to complete the investigation. So far, the department hasn’t found any hazardous-materials violations, he said.

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