Recently, I saw a headline that made my mouth drop: It’s been 10 years since the debut of what many consider to be the greatest television drama of all time, Breaking Bad! Since becoming a specialist here at the Illinois Poison Center, I’ve developed a newfound appreciation for the series because of the central role played by toxicology. Even though they weren’t drug or poison experts, the writers created a highly addictive program.
This multi-blog post series will examine how various drugs and poisons are portrayed in Breaking Bad and explain what kinds of cases we actually see here at the poison center. WARNING: Spoilers ahead!
We can’t discuss the toxicology of Breaking Bad without starting with meth. After all, the whole show centers around the illegal production and distribution of the substance. Meth is a stimulant, meaning it increases central nervous system activity and also inhibits the uptake of neurotransmitters i.e., serotonin.
Would you believe me if I told you meth is a legal drug? Per the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), it is a Schedule II substance, so while not entirely illegal, it is tightly regulated because it has a high potential for abuse and is considered dangerous. The drug can be prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children 6 years and older and obesity in patients 12 years and older. When treating these medical conditions, patients are often given a mixture of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine (Adderall) or other similar stimulants rather than meth itself.
In Breaking Bad, meth is shown to be administered two different ways. Most often, the characters snort it, as Jesse, Tuco and Badger do. In another instance, Jesse is seen smoking meth. Though not depicted in the show, meth can also be taken orally or injected intravenously.
When both Tuco and Badger use meth, it appears to cause a rush of euphoria and hyperactivity. Stimulant abuse is popular because it can keep people awake and focused, and has been reported in everyone from baseball players and truck drivers to college students.
Jesse accurately demonstrates some of the adverse effects of meth when smoking it—he becomes paranoid and tremulous, and hallucinates about two Mormon missionaries being biker gang members armed with a machete and hand grenade. In addition to bizarre hallucinations, meth can also cause nausea, vomiting, hypertension, rapid heart rate, and agitation. In more severe cases, meth overdoses can be life threatening, causing seizures, fevers of more than 104° Fahrenheit, muscle break down, and organ failure. The show does a great job depicting the chronic effects of meth abuse, as Tucker, Spooge and Spooge’s wife all appear disheveled, thin and covered in open lesions from constant scratching and skin picking.
When it comes to meth labs, Breaking Bad knocks it out of the park. It shows that clandestine meth labs can be found almost anywhere, from homes and vehicles to super labs underneath legitimate businesses and in foreign countries. When Walter White, the high school chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin, gets the opportunity to shadow a DEA raid of one of these labs, we get a sense for just how dirty and dangerous they are. It can take many different chemicals to manufacture meth, including dangerous substances such as acids, heavy metals like mercury and lead, solvents, and methanol. These chemicals have the potential to cause burns, create noxious gases and be quite explosive if improperly stored or mixed. Meth labs can be harmful not only to the individuals running them but also to innocent bystanders, especially children, and law enforcement officers.
For those of you who have seen the show, I hope this information enhances your enjoyment of Breaking Bad. If this was your first taste, feel free to binge it on Netflix. I’ve yet to meet someone who didn’t love it. Stay tuned for the next installment where we’ll discuss ghastly gases, audacious assassinations and agonizing acids!…Matt