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Are Takata Replacement Air Bags Any Safer Than the Originals?

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In a public statement at a news conference in June 2015, Takata CEO Shigehisa Takada finally apologized for the defective air bags that have caused at least 8 deaths and over 100 injuries. The company has also finally agreed to expand its previous regional air bag recalls to include all 50 states.

Though this is a definite step forward in trying to resolve what has become a long and drawn out public safety issue, there remain some concerning questions, the most important of which is: Are the replacement air bags any safer than the originals?

Still Unclear What Caused Takata Air Bags to Explode

We still don’t know exactly what caused some of the Takata air bags to explode rather than deploy as they should. Takata’s company studies have come up with some possibilities, including age of the air bag inflator, hot temperatures, and high humidities. These factors, when combined with some manufacturing defects that could lead to leaks in the inflaters, could all add up to a defective inflator that causes the bag to explode and shoot pieces of dangerous shrapnel into the interior of the vehicle.

Takata has stated, however, that it still hasn’t pinpointed the exact cause.

There have been other theories—mainly, that the chemical used in the air bag inflator is inherently unstable, and should have never been used in the first place. Takata’s CEO has rejected this theory, assuring the public that ammonium nitrate, the chemical used in Takata air bags, is safe.

This is a key issue, because that same chemical is also in some of Takata’s replacement air inflators.

Ammonium Nitrate at Center of Air Bag Controversy

The concern about ammonium nitrate was first raised by former Takata engineers, as revealed in a New York Times article in November 2014. Paul Worsey, expert in explosives engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, told the Times that the chemical “shouldn’t be used in airbags,” stating that it was more suitable for large demolitions in mining and construction. He added that ammonium nitrate was cheap, “unbelievably cheap.”

Two of the company’s former engineers also told the Times that they had concerns when Takata switched from a reliable compound called “tetrazole” to ammonium nitrate in 2001. They were worried even then that it was risky in an inflator, and could blow up.

Fiat Chrysler has stated that they will no longer use Takata inflators in driver’s side air bags, simply because they do still use ammonium nitrate. Other car manufacturers have also made the choice to avoid the potentially unstable chemical.

Takata Still Using Potentially Explosive Chemical

At a June 2, 2015 Congressional hearing, lawmakers questioned Takata about ammonium nitrate and it’s safety. Takata maintains that they will continue to use it, though a company executive stated that their use would go down significantly.

Michael Burgess (Rep-TX) headed the subcommittee that held the hearing. He told the Times that he remained concerned. “They are still making an airbag with ammonium nitrate as a propellant,” he said. “And they’re putting that in replacement vehicles.”