Sudden Impact: Is America facing a recall of the Takata recall?

Is America facing a recall of the Takata recall? ABC7's Lisa Fletcher investigates. (ABC7)

One in every five vehicles in the United States contains a Takata airbag.

If the name Takata sounds familiar, that’s because the United States is now two years into the largest recall in American history – with Takata at the center of the storm.

When some of Takata’s airbags deploy, they also eject metal shrapnel that’s killed at least 10 people and injured more than 100.

There are roughly 70 million vehicles currently under the recall, which crosses most major brands, but has been primarily concentrated among Hondas.

Replacements are being made and installed as fast as possible and according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, the government agency that's overseeing the recall, more than 9 million have been installed.

But there's a problem.

The very same company that designed the faulty airbag system - Takata - is designing and manufacturing its replacement...using the same, key ingredient that experts say caused the original airbags to fail and, they predict, will eventually cause the replacements to fail.

“I said, if we go forward with this, someone will be killed. I could not put it any more plainly than that."

Mark Lillie is Takata's former Engineering Manager and Senior Propellant Engineer. He supervised the design and testing of all propellants and airbag inflators at Takata’s manufacturing facility.

Lillie considers himself a whistleblower after he says, in 1999, and against his advice, Takata switched to an inexpensive, and notoriously unsuitable chemical, called ammonium nitrate, to deploy its airbags.

The same ingredient Takata uses today.

“Ammonium nitrate is not an appropriate choice for a high precision explosive. It’s used in bulk applications, in open pit mining and that kind of thing,” said Lillie.

In fact, ammonium nitrate is one of the explosives used to bring down the Murrah Federal Building in 1995. No airbag manufacturer, other than Takata, uses it.

Lillie says that's because its volatile nature cannot always be controlled when exposed to humidity or temperature swings. Something he says is particularly troubling in high-humidity, high-temperature parts of the country like Florida, which, according to the attorney who represents the highest number of Takata victims, is the number one state for Takata airbag related injuries.

Here's why the heat and humidity can be a problem:

When the airbag inflator is made, (the inflator is the metal housing that contains the ammonium nitrate that fires your airbag) the chemical inside is typically in the form of a small pellet, tablet or wafer. And it’s supposed to stay that way.

But if the chemical is exposed to humidity, or cycles of hot and cold, like a hot summer day and cooler night, the ammonium nitrate can change from a solid to a powder.

“That fine powder burns so quickly that the inflator body, the metal body, is over-pressurized and comes apart and flies at the occupant of the vehicle,” says Lillie. “It turns it into a pipe bomb, and you get shrapnel pointed at your head and at your neck.”

Shrapnel that robbed 28-year-old father of two, Corey Burdick, of his right eye after a minor accident.

Watch our interview with Burdick below. WARNING: Some of this video may be considered graphic:

Burdick’s 2001 Honda Civic stalled in an intersection. The front end of his car hit by an oncoming vehicle at low speed. The impact triggered crash sensors – deploying the airbag and sending a three inch piece of metal into his skull.


“The piece of metal was in there and it lodged into this cavity here,” says Burdick, as he points into the vacant socket visible after removing his prosthetic eye during our interview. “It was a millimeter from my brain. It could have went the other way and I could be six feet under the ground right now, like I don't know how many people are."

At least 10, including 17-year-old Texas high school senior Huma Hanif, who died March 31st, when the inflator on her Takata airbag ruptured and shrapnel severed the arteries in her neck.

In November 2015, five months before Hanif was killed, Transportation Secretary, Tony Foxx, publicly condemned Takata.

“For years Takata has built and sold defective inflators. It has refused to acknowledge that they were defective. It provided incomplete, inaccurate, misleading information to NHTSA, to the companies using its inflators and to the public."

Over the course of eight days, we made seven attempts to engage Takata in dialogue. They refused all requests for an interview and refused to answer questions we provided via email.

For more than a decade the company has made claims, including to NHTSA, that among other things it's fixed its inflator rupture problem by "phase stabilizing" the ammonium nitrate against heat, and by adding a drying agent, called a desiccant - to the inflator to absorb excess humidity.

The millions of new airbags being installed to satisfy the recall contain the desiccant as the fix.

“The desiccant only slows the progress, it does not eliminate the problem. And secondly, the desiccant does nothing to overcome the thermal cycling problem. There’s nothing there that solves that problem,” says Mark Lillie.

Remember, the “thermal cycling” is simply your car repeatedly going from extreme heat to cold – like a hot summer day and cold night.

We obtained copies of five Takata patents since 2000, indicating the company was trying to stabilize the ammonium nitrate, all the while, mass producing ammonium nitrate inflators.

“From 2000 to 2014 they're working on a fix to the problem,” says Lillie, “which tells me they still don't have a fix to the problem, which tells me that the desiccated inflators from 2008-2014 didn't work, and they know it didn't work, or they wouldn't have been working for an answer."

Lillie says catastrophic failure of the replacement airbags isn't his only concern. “There are a number of silent failures that are occurring right now. As that propellant ages and as that propellant starts to degrade, you will start to get more and more aggressive deployment of the inflator.”

So, even if the inflator doesn’t burst with shrapnel, says Lillie, it can deploy with such excessive force that it can break your neck, back or rupture the large blood vessel leading to the heart.

Conversely, he says, it can also under-inflate and not protect you from impact.

“In the case of under inflation, you've got so much moisture in there that the combustion snuffs-out before it burns the propellant completely. So you have unburned propellant, which means you didn't produce enough gas, and you didn't produce it fast enough.”

“For everyone that's been maimed and killed,” says Lillie, “there are many, many more that have been injured - either by the airbag, or injured because the airbag did not provide sufficient restraint.”

In mid-July, the family of 77-year-old Patricia Mincey settled with Takata.

According to their attorney, a minor accident in her 2001 Honda Civic caused Mincey's airbag to deploy so aggressively, it crushed her spine - rendering her quadriplegic. After two years on a breathing machine, Mincey died this past April.

Lillie says that as long as ammonium nitrate is part of the equation, this is an unsolvable problem.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration can force Takata to recall all ammonium nitrate inflators which, according to Senator Richard Blumenthal, would effectively stop potentially deadly airbags from being replaced with newer, potentially deadly airbags.

“To continue use of ammonium nitrate,” he says, “to repair or replace these airbags with equally or even more defective ones is absolutely reprehensible and irresponsible, maybe even criminal.”

In fact, Blumenthal, the former five-term Attorney General of Connecticut, says he will ask the Department of Justice to open a criminal investigation.

He also told us he expects the recall to double, or even triple worldwide, possibly extending to 250 million vehicles, and during all of that, he’ll be keeping his eye on NHTSA – making sure, he says, the agency rises to the occasion.

“NHTSA all too often has been asleep, literally, at the wheel,” says Blumenthal, “and it needs to demonstrate much more aggressive, proactive consumer protection.”

Blumenthal sits on the Senate committee that has pressured both NHTSA and Takata for answers.

“There is very powerful evidence that Takata knew it was concealing the truth, and therefore deceived consumers,”says Blumenthal.

“These cars that are under recall, and are now in use, are going to have to be recalled again. Even if they are repaired. That's really the irony here. It's a really outrageous irony. A recall of the recall. That’s absolutely mind boggling.”

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