Airbag poisons driver


The chemicals in your airbag can kill. That was the verdict from the South Tyneside Coroner, who concluded a motorist died after inhaling toxic substances from a split airbag. The unfortunate driver, engineer Ronald Smith from near Sunderland, got caught up in a six-car shunt near Hartlepool in November 2010. The airbag went off and immediately punctured after the window in his Vauxhall Insignia smashed in the accident.

He survived the crash, but died in January 2011 after being taken to the hospital complaining of shortness of breath. The cause of death was bronchial pneumonia, with the forensic pathologist saying his lungs showed signs of infection.

Coroner Terence Carneyblamed the airbag. “This man died as a result of this incident and more pointedly because of the explosion of his airbag.”

So what’s in an airbag that makes it so toxic? His widow June told the Daily Record that Smith had been shocked by the amount of white powder released by the bag. “He said there was so much of it he couldn’t see,” she said.

Airbags rapidly inflate with gas created by igniting a chemical called sodium azide. About a handful this white crystalline powder is needed to inflate a big airbag, and is extremely toxic.

So toxic that the effects of ingesting it have been compared to cyanide. In a book by US crime writer JA Jance, the murderer rips apart cars in a scrap yard to get the killer substance, which is also used to make pesticide.

We asked UK automotive safety organisation Thatcham about the potential problems airbag chemicals could inflict. Miniscule, they reckoned. “The danger of inhalation is extremely small,” said a spokesman.

They did say however that the chemical originally used before this, nitrocellulose, was even more toxic and also highly flammable.

Smith was about as unlucky as you can get, but with up to nine airbags fitted to newer cars, it makes you wonder just how much of this deadly stuff we transport on a daily basis.

Comments (108) Join the discussion on the forum

  • JulianL05 05 Jun 2012

    Mr. Smith was involved with a six-car crash in 2010. He was uninjured and the crash was relatively minor, but, unfortunately, the airbag that saved his life also took him. The automaker Vauxhall, a subsidiary of General Motors, said that it is investigating the matter, but made no further comment. I read this here: Man dies from inhaling air bag gases.

  • Black S2K 31 May 2012

    LongRat said:
    My understanding was that the biggest chemical risk with azide airbag charges was the metallic powdered sodium that forms along with the hot nitrogen. This will react with the water on your skin/in your lungs and mucous membranes to produce sodium hydroxide (caustic soda). That's not too pleasant, but I'm sure much is done to contain the sodium.
    That's more plausible.

    Pneumonia can be triggered by inhaling all sorts of things. Flames being particularly nasty.

    Then a bacterial infection can easily spread.

    One of those unfortunate things, I'm afraid.

  • Prof Prolapse 31 May 2012

    DJ_AS said:
    Yup, I get what you're saying. My own personal experience of sodium azide is simply its use as a preservative - adding it to various liquid mixtures and suspensions to increase shelf life.

    Having said that, we did try to limit its use due to its inherent toxicity. I didn't realise at the time that it also had explosive properties!
    Explosive as well eh? Thank goodness I don't have airbags...


  • LongRat 31 May 2012

    My understanding was that the biggest chemical risk with azide airbag charges was the metallic powdered sodium that forms along with the hot nitrogen. This will react with the water on your skin/in your lungs and mucous membranes to produce sodium hydroxide (caustic soda). That's not too pleasant, but I'm sure much is done to contain the sodium.

  • DJ_AS 31 May 2012

    Prof Prolapse said:
    Respiratory toxicology was what the cool kids studied.

    You jumped the gun a bit was all. Just because it is anti-microbial doesn't mean it will be in vivo. That and any affect will be transient. Unlike the associated damage to the lungs which presumably resulted in fibrosis, poor lung clearance etc. then all it takes is a bit of fluid build up (a known effect of Sodium Azide) then bacteria infestation is pretty much a certainty. You even don't even need outside infection, just an inbalance in the "floral" bacteria already in your lungs. Then it's game over.

    Speculated a little. But you catch my drift I'm sure.
    Yup, I get what you're saying. My own personal experience of sodium azide is simply its use as a preservative - adding it to various liquid mixtures and suspensions to increase shelf life.

    Having said that, we did try to limit its use due to its inherent toxicity. I didn't realise at the time that it also had explosive properties!

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