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House Panel Questions Air Bag Manufacturer About Chemical Explosive It Uses

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And in this country, the largest product recall ever is underway. Nearly 34 million Americans are being asked to bring their cars in for service to replace potentially defective air bags. They have been linked to six deaths. Yesterday on Capitol Hill, House members grilled the Japanese manufacturer Takata over why the air bags they made were so dangerous. NPR's Jason Margolis reports.

JASON MARGOLIS, BYLINE: Committee members were fixated on a chemical compound called ammonium nitrate. It's used as an explosive that the Takata Corporation uses in air bags. They're the only company to use it as the main propellant, and experts say it's a factor that can cause air bags to explode with too much force. Committee Chair Michael Burgess, Republican from Texas, was astounded that Takata is still using the compound. Here, he's questioning Takata's executive vice president of North America, Kevin Kennedy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL BURGESS: I'm sorry. You go out and buy a brand-new car off the showroom floor, and it could have one of these instruments in it?

KEVIN KENNEDY: It could - it could have an ammonium nitrate-based inflator that does not have desiccant. That's correct.

MARGOLIS: A desiccant is a substance that absorbs water. It's important because moisture from humidity is believed to alter the volume of ammonium nitrate. But other factors are also at play. Kennedy said Takata is testing tens of thousands of air bags.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENNEDY: To really understand what the total scope is.

BURGESS: Well, I'm sorry. You're not providing me much reassurance with that answer.

MARGOLIS: Committee members didn't get much reassurance about the root cause of Takata's problems from Mark Rosekind either. He's the National Highway Traffic Safety administrator. Rosekind said it's tough to isolate exactly what went wrong with Takata's air bags.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK ROSEKIND: In my recent experience as an NTSB board member and a veteran of many major transportation investigations, it may be that there is no single root cause. Or the root cause may never be known.

MARGOLIS: Still, committee members from both sides of the aisle veered back to the compound ammonium nitrate. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, read a statement from an explosives expert about ammonium nitrate. Takata's Kevin Kennedy responds.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARSHA BLACKBURN: (Reading) It shouldn't be used in air bags, but it is cheap - unbelievably cheap.

Do you agree with that statement?

KENNEDY: That it's unbelievably cheap or that it shouldn't be used?

BLACKBURN: Both.

MARGOLIS: Kennedy eventually disagreed with both statements while giving a brief lesson about chemicals and costs. It wasn't just Takata that got a scolding. Republican Fred Upton from Michigan expressed frustration with the National Transportation Safety Administration for announcing the recall before its database was complete.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRED UPTON: Drivers read about the recall - biggest one in history - but could not look up if their own car was part of the recall. How does that help safety?

MARGOLIS: Administrator Mark Rosekind used those arrows to criticize funding cuts and ask for more money. He said he has only eight people to oversee the largest recall in American history. Jason Margolis, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.