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Airbag Chemicals Cause Breathing Problems

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Lately, we have received numerous calls and emails about airbags causing breathing difficulties.  Most people wonder whether airbag deployment has been linked to such problems, especially when someone already has asthma or other conditions that affect breathing and respiration.

The answer is clearly YES. 

The automotive industry has known for many, many years that air bag deployment can cause breathing problems, and that those problems can be especially severe when a person has pre-existing respiratory conditions.  Here’s why:

Air bag deployment is often based on the burning of chemicals.  The most widely used chemical is sodium azide.  When it burns, it generates not only nitrogen gas that fills the airbag, but also numerous by-products.  In this way, it is similar to the burning of gas in your engine creating numerous by-products that come out of your exhaust system.  Although other airbag inflators may use stored gas, they also have a “heating element”, which means another chemical that is burned to heat and expand the gas that inflates the airbag.  Because no combustion is 100% pure, there are always by-products produced by all of these inflators.

The by-products fall within two broad categories: gases and particulates.  Gases that are produced can include those that have been linked to severe injuries, such as benzene and toluene.  Particulates are small particles that are suspended in the air, which appear as smoke or dust.  They are the reason that many people report seeing smoke in their car after an airbag deploys.  This is because all airbags have venting, either through the porous fabric or through vent holes, that allow the smoke to escape from the airbag, as seen in this photo:


Collectively, gases and particulates from an air bag are called “effluent”, which simply means they flow out from the air bag during deployment.

The concerns over the harm that could be caused by these airbag chemicals led the Society of Automotive Engineers to create a standard for measuring these by-products.  That standard lists numerous chemicals that should be measured by the manufacturers to determine the risk of injury posed by their inflators.

More than a decade ago, General Motors conducted tests to evaluate the effects of these chemicals on people exposed to air bag deployment.  I know, since I personally saw such testing.  I provided a car for the testing, as well as many air bag modules, and the testing was conducted by scientists at the General Motors Research Laboratories.  The results were astounding.

Volunteers were used for such testing.  They sat in the back seat of the car, with medical professionals supervising the testing.  There were also numerous instruments in the vehicle to measure the amount of gases and particulates, as well as their types and sizes.  The intent was to have the volunteer stay in the car, with the windows up, for 20 minutes following deployment.  During that period of time, the volunteers’ physiological signs were monitored, including their breathing rate.  In at least one case, the volunteer could not stand it, and needed to get out of the car almost right away.  His measurements showed significant distress!

That testing also showed that the most vulnerable people were those who had other, pre-existing conditions affecting their ability to breathe.  For example, people with asthma were at risk.  The more severe the asthma, the higher the risk from air bag deployment.  Several people have reported very significant respiratory injuries from airbag deployment; we have even heard of one death attributed to air bag deployment.  The worst injuries occur if a person cannot exit the vehicle right away (for example, if they are knocked out, or if the doors won’t open after the accident), and the windows are closed.

That same testing program also evaluated the effect of air bag deployment on a person’s hearing.  That will be the subject of a separate post.