The AMC television show Breaking Bad revolves around the story of Walter 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 (Jesse) 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.
Throughout the show’s five season run, Walt and Jesse use large quantities of hydrofluoric acid to dissolve the corpses of murder victims, whether from their own deeds or the acts of their drug lord boss, Gustavo. The acid, not usually considered strong because it does not completely dissociate in water, is shown not to react with polyethylene plastic. Jesse, in charge of disposing of the body of his former partner in crime in the first season, disregards Walt’s instructions to buy a plastic bin, instead using the bathtub in his home. After everything had gone down the drain and Jesse thought he was in the clear, his second floor collapsed because the acid had corroded the pipes, resulting in blood and organs falling to the floor.
In later seasons, bodies are placed in plastic bins and appear to have absolutely no remnants whatsoever.
Though it undeniably made for good television, I was left with a burning question: would hydrofluoric acid really completely dissolve a body?
Probably not, say most of the sources I referenced.
The acid is corrosive and will eat through most metals – small amounts are used to etch metals – but it is known as the weakest of all the halide acids. The compound is typically identified as a contact poison rather than a corrosive; usually, human exposures to hydrofluoric acid results in cardiac arrest and hypocalcemia as the molecules pass into the bloodstream and react strongly with local calcium and magnesium ions. Direct contact with large amounts of highly concentrated acid will result in severe burns, but immediate medical attention (such as calcium infusion) would likely lead to a full recovery.
Dr. Anne Marie Helmenstine, About.com chemist, was surprised by Walt’s choice of body disposal, pointing out that the most well known method of dissolving flesh is a lye and water mixture. Animals, like deceased livestock and road kill, are sometimes disposed of in this manner, leaving only a brown sludge and brittle bones. Not to mention, lye can be much more easily obtained than hydrofluoric acid.