The AMC television show Breaking Bad revolves around the story of Walt White, a high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Concerned about the financial situation of his family, consisting of his pregnant writer wife Skyler and son Walter Jr., who has severe cerebral palsy, Walt partners with one of his former students to begin cooking and selling methamphetamine. Tensions break out as his family discovers his illness and he tries to hide his illegal activities from his brother in law, Hank, who is an agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The show features a lot of science and chemical jargon. But is it accurate?
The answer is yes, according to script managers and associate producers, as well as Dr. Anne Marie Helmenstine of About.com.
The method for producing crystal meth on the show is on point. Writers consulted DEA agents when producing the script, and detailed instructions on producing the drug found via Google corroborate the claim. The show does not outline exactly how to make meth, but the general process shown and ingredients necessary do match what is actually done by dealers in meth labs, though Walt’s chemical expertise yields crystals of the highest purity that many in his New Mexico town want to buy.
Methamphetamine is made by reducing pseudoephedrine or ephedrine, often from cold and allergy medications. The tablets sold over the counter are not composed entirely of the chemicals needed, however, so cooks go through a process to extract the necessary ingredients. They then combine the pseudoephedrine with red phosphorous and iodine. It is common to throw in additives to make the batch go farther, resulting in low purity meth on the streets.
The dangers of meth labs are highlighted in the show when Walt intentionally produces phosphine gas in an attempt to kill two drug dealers his partner, Jesse, brings to their cook site. The gas is produced by white phosphorous reacting with sodium hydroxide, so the risk of exposure to the very toxic gas is a real threat. Although not featured on the show yet (I have only watched the first season), white phosphorous is unstable and can explode easily. Other toxins to which one may be exposed in a meth lab are vapors of chloroform, ether, acetone, ammonia, hydrochloric acid, methylamine, iodine, hydroiodic acid, lithium or sodium, mercury, and hydrogen gas.
The negative side effects of meth use is depicted in the series, although to a lesser extent than probably should be. Jesse, the two dealers that Walt kills, and the drug kingpin show none of the traditional effects of meth abuse, although a prostitute that Walt’s DEA agent brother-in-law introduces to Walt Jr. to scare him away from drugs suffers from “meth mouth,” a condition whereby one’s teeth rot and fall out as a result of drug use. More typical symptoms of the drug include brain tissue and nerve damage similar to that suffered by Alzheimer’s patients and long-lasting behavioral changes. Dr. Helmenstine believes that some issues, like meth mouth, are a result of impurities of street meth, as pure methamphetamines have legitimate medical uses.