Every day at auto dealerships around the country, service technicians dealing with the massive Takata airbag recall are putting pint-sized explosives into their hands.
Replacing the airbag inflators is delicate work. The canisters are filled with ammonium nitrate, the same chemical Timothy McVeigh used to blow up a federal building in Oklahoma City.
Workers must put each canister in a device vised onto a table that provides some protection in case of explosion. They need to make sure there’s nothing loose within three feet of the back of the cage and two feet on the sides that could become a projectile.
Technicians are reminded to keep touching metal objects nearby to make sure their static electricity is discharged again and again, because an accident with the canisters could be fatal.
“My guys might feel differently, but it scares me to death,” said Carroll Smith, owner of Monument Chevrolet in Pasadena, Texas, outside Houston. “I was in the Navy, and these airbag units remind me of a Claymore mine.
“If we were in the Army, my guys would be getting hazardous duty pay just to deal with these things.”
That risk came into grim relief as reported here last month when a truck carrying Takata airbag inflators and a cargo of ammonium nitrate crashed and exploded in a Texas border town, carving a hole into the roadway, incinerating a nearby house and killing the 69-year-old woman who lived inside. The truck was heading to a plant in Eagle Pass, Texas — about 20 miles away — according to Takata spokesman Jared Levy.
The explosion left a crater about 14 feet by 20 feet and threw a part of the truck’s engine in the air “like a ball,” said Maverick County Sheriff Tom Schmerber. “It was like a big bomb went off.”
The accident is still under investigation by state and federal authorities, and the role of the ammonium nitrate in the explosion remains unclear.
Removing and replacing airbag inflators filled with ammonium nitrate will be part of dealers’ service routines for several years. More than 34 million vehicles in the U.S. face recalls because of faulty Takata airbag inflators that can rupture in the event of a crash and spray shrapnel into the cabin.
Federal officials have outlined a phased recall approach that will target high-heat and high-humidity regions first and will ultimately involve replacing some of the very inflators that are being installed now as replacements. Nearly 70 million Takata airbag inflators will have been under recall by 2019.
In June 2015, Kevin Kennedy, executive vice president of Takata’s North American division, told a U.S. House committee that the company was “transitioning away” from using ammonium nitrate in its airbag inflators. Takata is the only airbag supplier that uses the chemical and has maintained that it is safe when handled and packaged properly.
Ammonium nitrate was a curious choice for airbags, which need a small amount of explosive to activate in a crash. Ammonium nitrate is an odorless crystallized chemical used as part of many different fertilizer compounds. Besides the Oklahoma City bombing, ammonium nitrate also was used in the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 and in many terrorist attacks around the globe.
Takata has had its own issues with the chemical. In 2006, its plant in Ciudad Frontera, Mexico, which was the primary production spot for airbag inflators, blew up. According to Reuters, workers there said the blast was caused by ammonium nitrate kept near the factory.
Paul Worsey, professor and director of explosives education at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, said Takata should never have chosen ammonium nitrate for airbag inflators.
Temperature swings can cause the chemical to break down and become unstable, he said, resulting in an explosion with much more force than intended.
“It was a bad choice; a bad, bad choice,” Worsey said. “Ammonium nitrate is not a choice of the military because the military knows it has shelf-life problems.”
One major concern when handling any kind of explosive device is static electricity. One spark can result in a bang, so service technicians are instructed to remember to repeatedly discharge any static electricity before picking up the airbag inflators. Worsey said that’s a habit he has developed over the years when he’s handling explosives as part of his job.
The other likely way these inflators could explode would be exposure to fire, but Worsey said there are likely many such chemicals in a service bay that could be harmful, such as paints, that workers are accustomed to working with.
Plus, it takes a lot of heat to get the inflators to explode, and people would likely have evacuated the area before anything terrible could happen, Worsey said.