Takata Corp. is adding 2.7 million vehicles from Ford, Nissan and Mazda to the long list of those being recalled to replace potentially dangerous air bag inflators.
The inflators are a type that previously was thought to be safe. Vehicles affected are from the 2005 through 2012 model years.
Takata inflators can explode with too much force and spew shrapnel into drivers and passengers. At least 17 people have died and more than 180 have been injured due to the problem. The inflators have caused the largest automotive recall in U.S. history; before Tuesday's announcement, 42 million vehicles and up to 69 million inflators in the nation had been called back for repairs.
Takata uses the chemical compound ammonium nitrate to inflate its air bags. But the compound can deteriorate when exposed to high airborne humidity and high temperatures. Previously, the company believed that a drying agent called a desiccant stopped the compound from degrading and the inflators were safe.
But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Tuesday that tests done by Takata show that for the first time, a type of desiccated inflator "will pose a safety risk if not replaced." The agency says it has no reports of any inflators with the desiccant rupturing.
Nissan said the new recall affects just over 515,000 Versa subcompact hatchback and sedans from the 2007 through 2012 model years. Mazda said its recall covers about 6,000 B-Series trucks from 2007 through 2009. Ford, which has the most vehicles involved in the latest recall, is reviewing the information and plans to file a list of models within the five days required by law.
Takata said in documents filed with the NHTSA that it tested inflators returned from Nissan and Ford vehicles that use calcium sulfate as a drying agent. Although none of the inflators blew apart, some showed a pattern of deterioration in the ammonium nitrate propellant over time "that is understood to predict a future risk of inflator rupture."
The NHTSA said in a statement that not all Takata inflators with a desiccant are being recalled. Takata used different drying agents in other inflators, the agency said.
The latest recall raises doubts about the safety of other Takata inflators that use ammonium nitrate and drying agents. The company has agreed to recall all original equipment inflators without a drying agent in phases by the end of 2018. The NHTSA gave Takata until the end of 2019 to prove that inflators with the drying agents are safe, or they must be recalled as well.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said Tuesday that the NHTSA needs to move faster to figure out whether all remaining Takata inflators are safe. "This recall now raises serious questions about the threat posed by all of Takata's ammonium-nitrate-based air bags," Nelson said in a statement. "We certainly can't afford to wait until the December 2019 deadline for that determination."
Crushed by mounting recall and legal costs, Takata filed for bankruptcy last month in the United States and Japan, saying that was the only way to ensure it could keep supplying replacements for faulty inflators. Most of the company's assets will be bought by rival Key Safety Systems for about $1.6 billion. Remnants of Takata's operations will continue to make inflators to be used as replacement parts for 19 affected automakers.
The NHTSA said Takata has assured the agency that it will keep making parts available.
The safety agency is urging people whose inflators have been recalled to get them replaced as soon as possible. To find out if your car or truck is part of the recall, go to https://www.nhtsa.gov/recalls and key in your vehicle's 17-digit vehicle identification number. It may take a few days for models in the most recent recall to show up in the database.