According to the coroner's office, Ronald Smith of Mardsen, South Shields in the UK "died as a result of the car crash and more pointedly because of the explosion of his airbag, and exposure to noxious substances."

According to IOL Motoring, Smith had been involved in a six-car accident in November of 2010 on his way home from work. While he wasn't physically injured in the crash, Smith inhaled the noxious contents of his airbag, which he said amounted to gases and a bunch of white powder, when an errant shard of glass punctured the bag.

A short time later, Smith was placed on a ventilator at South Tyneside District Hospital after suffering random coughing fits and breathlessness from any kind of physical activity. Smith died three weeks after being admitted to the hospital due to bronchial pneumonia.

Smith had been driving a Vauxhall Insignia, and General Motors is reportedly investigating the accident. Sodium azide, a chemical used to inflate airbags, turns into nitrogen gas when heated to inflate the device. Although sodium azide is toxic to humans, this appears to be the first time someone has died from its use in automotive airbags.


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  • 25 Comments
      rlog100
      • 2 Years Ago
      Invent a device that saves hundreds or thousands of lives in return for a one new injury and automakers get sued into oblivion. No one needs to guess, now, why they drag their heels on new features.
      themanwithsauce
      • 2 Years Ago
      As a chemist, the inhalation of both the gas and any possible products from reaction with air/water/heat are expected and are meant to be safe in minor doses. Or at least a lot safer than a steering column to the face. The nitrogen gas creation makes it quite safe as the air you breathe is roughly 75% or so (give or take a few degrees) N2 gas. Sodium azide is a bit toxic but even in your lungs the azide group will break off as N2 and the sodium is....well its no different than the sodium in your body right now. Aside is chemist speak for two nitrogen triple bonded together on another structure. Two nitrogen triple bonded together on their own is nitrogen gas. So once sodium azide decomposes it becomes two things the human body is used to - a sodium ion and nitrogen gas.
      CanIGetAWhatWhat
      • 2 Years Ago
      The Wikipedia article on airbags is a bit unclear, but it seems to suggest that sodium azide is being / has been phased out of modern airbags.
      auto transport quote
      • 2 Years Ago
      It is converted by reaction with other ingredients, such as potassium nitrate and silica. In the latter case, innocuous sodium silicates are generated.[4] Sodium azide is also used in airplane escape chutes. No toxicity has been reported from spent airbags. I think this is a nice car. I like it.
      Kwijiboz
      • 2 Years Ago
      I've been in an accident hard enough for the airbags to be needed. The accident itself was all over in a nanosecond, and I must have hit the airbag because my glasses were bent afterwards. First thing I think about was my rising panic when sitting there, driver's door un-openable, and the interior rapidly filling up with white smoke from the airbags. It seemed odourless, and I could tell it wasn't actual smoke, but it was still pretty scary until a bystander wrenched my door open. FWIW the accident was an offset head-on, I was driving a 2001 VW Bora (Jetta in US) which was a complete write-off, and the airbag & integrity of the car prevented serious injury.....but I've often wondered about that white gas.
        S.
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Kwijiboz
        Isn't it the powder that keeps the folded airbag from sticking to itself within the steering wheel? Like talcum powder or something similar?
          Kwijiboz
          • 2 Years Ago
          @S.
          It could well have been, however it really did fill the car, to the point where I couldn't actually see the passenger door it was so thick. Also, it was continuing to pour out from behind the airbag making the interior more and more dense, rather than being some initial burst that slowly dissipated.
        DooMMasteR
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Kwijiboz
        same here but that powder is talcum the VW design releases the gas on the backside of the airbag and thusly not directly into the passengers direction (tough I still would rather not inhale them) in my case the door glass was shattered and i had plenty of ventilation :P
      stevefazek
      • 2 Years Ago
      IF they think that is toxic wait untill the chinese find out its cheaper to inflate airbags with mercury fulminate.
      Andre Neves
      • 2 Years Ago
      Irony.
      miketim1
      • 2 Years Ago
      wow . . . If the impact doesn't kill you... the poison will. . .
      NicksGarage
      • 2 Years Ago
      This doesn't make any sense unless the sodium azide wasn't totally consumed during deployment. Maybe an errant shard of glass punctured his lung.
      lasertekk
      • 2 Years Ago
      Curious how old the victim was. Unfortunately, the older you get, the less your immune system works and the more prone you are to pneumonia. Where in a younger person this would have been a short term lung irritation, it turned into pneumonia for this individual with dire results.
        jvshenderson
        • 2 Years Ago
        @lasertekk
        The original news article says he was a healthy 59 year old. So he wasn't young, but he wasn't yet old enough that pneumonia becomes a serious worry in the absence of other lung injury.
      xspeedy
      • 2 Years Ago
      Would be a lot more fun with helium.
      dukeisduke
      • 2 Years Ago
      "...when an errant shard of glass punctured the bag." Huh? Airbags already have pretty good sized vent holes on the back, so that they will deflate quickly. It's not like they're hermetically sealed. Unless the windows are all rolled down, you're going to inhale some of the nitrogen gas, and the powder is simply talc.
        DooMMasteR
        • 2 Years Ago
        @dukeisduke
        and their materials are pretty strong (not that easy ripped by security glass like it is used in cars)
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