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About 85 million Takata air bag inflators that haven't been recalled are inside cars and trucks now being driven in the U.S. and would have to be replaced if the company can't prove they are safe, the government said Wednesday.
The number would be in addition to the 28.8 million inflators already slated for replacement in what has become the largest automotive recall in the nation's history. If all the inflators are recalled, they would total almost 114 million. A recall that massive would take years to complete and cost Takata billions of dollars.
Unlike most air bag makers, Takata's inflators use the chemical ammonium nitrate to create a small explosion that fills air bags in a crash. But the chemical can burn too fast and explode with too much force, blowing apart a metal canister and hurling shrapnel at drivers and passengers. At least 11 people have died worldwide and over 100 have been hurt.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which made the estimate, says it doesn't know how many vehicles have Takata air bags, but said many have more than one inflator made by the company.
The new number shows how much worse the Takata problem could become, said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, who has urged NHTSA to recall all Takata inflators and make the company stop selling those with ammonium nitrate. "It underscores the need for regulators to provide the public with better answers when it comes to every Takata airbag on the road," Nelson said in a statement.
Under the terms of an agreement reached with Takata last year, the Japanese parts supplier must prove to the agency that the unrecalled inflators are safe to use, or they must be recalled. The agency has said that it expects the number of Takata recalls to increase.
The problem has been linked to older cars with long-term exposure to high humidity. That's why replacement parts are being targeted to areas such as the U.S. Gulf Coast, although many of the cars have been recalled nationwide. No one knows for certain how long it takes for the ammonium nitrate to deteriorate or whether inflators in older cars in cooler, less-humid states might explode in the future. That makes the safety of Takata inflators — which are in driver, passenger and side air bags — a potentially deadly unknown.