In the first part of this two part series, we discussed what I would argue is the true star of Breaking Bad, methamphetamine (meth). In Part 2, I hope to show that while Walter White was supposedly an expert chemist, he was also well-versed in the field of Toxicology!
In the pilot episode, Walter suddenly faces a kill or be killed situation. With a gun literally against his head, Walter dumps a container of red phosphorus into a sauce pan full of liquid, creating an explosion and bolts out of the RV. Walter’s victims become trapped inside quickly suffocating on the fumes. A baffled Jesse learns his partner had just created phosphine gas. Walter surprisingly gets his chemistry confused, as his explanation for how he created phosphine gas is incorrect. Red phosphorous can create phosphine gas, but only when combined with an acid and heated up. Phosphine gas can also be created when the pesticides aluminum phosphide and zinc phosphide come in contact with moisture.
Walter is able to solve his almost being murdered problem with phosphine gas, but has created another issue; what to do with the bodies? He decides to use Hydrofluoric acid (HF) to eliminate any evidence. This process leads to what can only be described as one of the most graphic scenes in television history (google at your own risk). Here at the Illinois Poison Center, we do get occasional calls about HF as it is commonly used as a brick cleaner, rust remover and vehicle wheel cleaner, as well as used in a variety of manufacturing processes.
HF is a fascinating acid because not only can it cause burns, but because of its chemical properties as a weak acid, HF can be absorbed through the skin causing symptoms throughout the body. The fluoride ion in HF is able to dissociate and is then free to bind to the specific electrolytes calcium and magnesium in the blood. Significant drops in these electrolytes can lead to the inability to feel pain from damaged nerves and life-threatening heart problems.
Throughout the series, Walter tries to use Ricin, a toxin found in the plant ricinus communis or more commonly known as the castor bean, to assassinate his enemies. While Walter is unsuccessful in his attempts to poison Tuco and Gus, he finally is able to administer the toxin to Lydia. Ricin works by inhibiting protein synthesis leading to wide spread cell death and organ damage. When ingested, ricin causes severe nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, gastrointestinal (GI) bleeding and fever. Though the majority of patients survive, more serious exposures can lead to liver and kidney damage, coma, seizures and death. The most famous case of ricin poisoning was in 1978 when Soviet KGB agents used an umbrella to inject a pellet of ricin to assassinate Georgi Markov. While it is true castor plants contain ricin, castor oil is non-toxic as the deadly toxin is removed from the oil.
Lily of the Valley
It takes a truly evil person to try and harm an eight year old and it is strongly implied that Walter poisons Brock with Lily of the Valley (Convallaria Majalis) in order to manipulate Jesse. Thankfully Brock makes a full recovery. Lily of the Valley contains a cardiac glycoside, similar to the drug digoxin, and can be found throughout the United States. Cardiac glycosides interfere with sodium potassium pumps in the heart. Small ingestions of cardiac glycosides can lead to nausea, vomiting, drowsiness, and a slow heart rate. More severe exposures can lead to life threatening bradycardia, hypotension, heart dysrhythmias, and death. Inadvertent small ingestions of Lily of the Valley by children rarely cause serious toxicity other than mild GI symptoms, but intentional and large ingestions are another story.
Gus takes out the entire upper echelon of a Mexican drug cartel and in the process nearly kills himself. The poison used was never revealed. However it is incredibly deadly as only a shot’s worth of the poison laced Tequila is needed and the onset of death is rapid. I would bet it was cyanide as it is surprisingly easy to obtain and a recent very public suicide by cyanide was remarkably similar to the scene.
That’s it for our two part series on the toxicology of Breaking Bad. Let us know if there are other popular movies or television shows where poisons play a prominent role that you would like us go geek out on!
Until next time,