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What Caused a Truck Carrying Takata Airbag Propellant to Explode?

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A truck carrying Takata air bag parts and chemicals crashed on a road in Texas on August 22, 2016. The accident killed one woman and injured four other people.

Takata, makers of the infamous air bags that have been linked to over 14 deaths and over 100 injuries, was transporting ammonium nitrate—the unstable chemical that has been found to be part of the cause of the air bag explosions—between a propellant factory in Washington State to Mexico.

The accident marks another setback for the air bag maker. Already Takata’s air bag recall has become the industry’s largest ever, affecting nearly 70 million vehicles in the United States.

Truck Carrying Ammonium Nitrate Crashes and Explodes

The truck was run by a Takata subcontractor and carried ammonium nitrate, the propellant for the air bags, along with thousands of newly manufactured inflators. The crash occurred at about two o’clock in the morning on U.S. Highway 277, as the truck was traveling from Del Rio, Texas, to a Takata warehouse in Eagle Pass. From there, the propellant is transferred to other trucks and transported to Takata’s airbag factory in Monclova, Mexico.

It’s not yet clear what caused the accident. An initial investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) stated that the parts were properly packaged and stored. In the next couple of weeks, the agencies will decide whether or not a more thorough investigation of the accident is warranted.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has required that Takata phase out its use of ammonium nitrate by 2018 unless the company can prove that it is completely safe. So far, it seems Takata is complying with that order, as stated in 2015 that it would gradually stop producing the propellant.

The accident caused a huge explosion that incinerated one home, killing a woman inside it. She was later identified by dental records. Four others were injured, including the two drivers of the truck, who allegedly fled after it swerved off the road and crashed, and two passers-by in another car. Residents in houses two miles away reported that the explosion caused broken windows and created holes in their roofs.

Ammonium Nitrate Believed to Be Unstable Over Time

This isn’t the first explosion linked to large amounts of ammonium nitrate. The New York Times states that back in March 2006, Takata’s Monclova plant was the source of a series of blasts also believed to be caused by the potentially unstable chemical. Hundreds of workers were forced to evacuate and the shock waves blew out the windows of nearby homes.

In vehicles, occupants have been allegedly injured and killed by Takata air bags that explode upon deployment. These air bags are typically in older model vehicles, though some have exploded even in newer cars. So far, scientists believe that the ammonium nitrate can become unstable after many years in climates that typically have high temperatures and high humidities. It is vehicles in areas like Florida and Hawaii that have been identified as highest priority for air bag replacements.

When Takata air bags explode in this way, they shoot out tiny metal and plastic pieces into the interior of the vehicle, causing knife-like wounds in occupants, and sometimes leading to life-threatening bleeding.