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Exploding Airbags Cause Chemical Burns


. By Anne Wallace

While many exploding airbag lawsuits focus on the harm caused by flying shrapnel, it is also important to be aware of the risk of high temperature chemical burns. Airbags are filled with sodium hydroxide that becomes an aerosol during deployment. If the airbag is improperly vented or filtered, the gas can cause serious chemical burns, indirect burns from melting clothing and inhalation injuries. Potential plaintiffs should make sure that they have complete medical records, including photographs, of all of their airbag injuries when seeking legal redress.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that airbags have saved thousands of lives, but even when they function correctly, they may pose risks to drivers and passengers.

An airbag typically works when a sensor detects rapid deceleration. This triggers a chemical reaction, which produces a large volume of hot gas to inflate the airbag, with temperatures within the airbag reaching as high as 500°C. The airbag then deflates over a period of about a second, releasing hot gas into the passenger compartment.

When airbags malfunction, they may explode spontaneously in the absence of any rapid deceleration or with such force that they spew metal and plastic fragments as well as hot gasses into the passenger compartment. To date, defective airbags have been the cause of millions of recalls by auto manufacturers including Honda, Mitsubishi, and GM, among others, multiple class action lawsuits and the bankruptcy of auto parts manufacturer, Takata Corp.

But even when airbags work as intended, they can burn drivers or passengers. Researchers have reported second degree burns on the hands and forearms of drivers due to the positioning of the exhaust vents. Hot venting gases can also cause clothes to melt onto the body, particularly lightweight synthetics. Other recently reported but rarer burns have been from direct contact with heated airbag material. Shorter passengers may be particularly at risk of burns to the face and upper chest. Chemical burns affecting the eyes are especially important to diagnose and treat promptly.

Individuals, who have been injured by airbags, whether or not the safety devices were working as intended, should collect and document evidence of the full extent of their injuries. Burns may be a significant component of the serious harm that airbag deployment can case and should not be overlooked when plaintiffs seek legal recourse.

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