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 (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.
When Jesse and Walt want to kill local drug boss Tuco after he had threatened them, Walt’s mind jumps to ricin, a poison which induces flu like symptoms and will not show up on an autopsy or toxin screen without carefully looking for it.
Purified ricin is a real poison, resulting in symptoms like nausea, diarrhea, hypotension, and seizures. The LD50 of the pure toxin is roughly 22 micrograms per kilogram — about 1.78 mg for an average adult. If the minimal dosage is ingested, it would be difficult to detect, though ricin concentrations may be found in blood, plasma, and urine.
The Southwest’s drug lord, Gustavo, spikes the drinks of his opponents in the Mexican drug cartels with ricin, and all keel over within three or four hours. This is unlikely, especially because oral exposure is far less toxic than inhalation, requiring about 20 milligrams per kilogram. In reality, an average toxic dose of ricin will cause death in three to five days.
Walt and Jesse’s plan would involve chemical manipulation probably out of their ability. Walt procures about eight castor beans (the plant from which ricin is extracted). Though the former chemist knew how to synthesize the toxin, it requires specialized equipment that neither man had access to in Season 1.
Walt violently cautions Jesse against even directly touching only the beans, which was a bit of an overreaction – one would have to eat and thoroughly chew all eight castor beans to be exposed to the necessary dosage of ricin.