Breaking Bad II - acid bath disposal of bodies

Note: these articles have been published in InfoChem, the supliment to Education in Chemistry produced by The Royal Society of Chemistry.

In Breaking Bad [1] Walter White is a high school chemistry teacher with a critical illness who needs to make cash for his family. He has turned drug maker, cooking-up 'meth' (methamphetamine) with Jesse, a local dealer. In a previous episode the two got into a tight spot with gangsters who forced them to make drugs. He improvised an experiment to gas them but now they have the problem of disposing of the bodies [2]. Walter suggests using acid.

He knows that an acid such as hydrofluoric acid (HF) will be able to dissolve the bodies completely so he steals a few large bottles of HF from his high school chemical stores. He tells Jesse that they need to be careful about the type of plastic container they use and sends him off to the local hardware store. Hiding behind the shop shelves he tries sitting in plastic crates to see if they would be large enough but soon gets so annoyed and frustrated he simply goes home, places the first body in his household bath and wearing gloves and a face mask adds the acid . When the two next meet up at the end of the day the acid has eaten through the bottom of the bath and they arrive just in time to witness the floorboards give way, releasing all the ghastly contents onto the corridor below!

HF readily reacts with metals, many types of plastic, glass and yes even flesh and bone. HF used to be stored in wax bottles but nowadays polyethylene or Teflon (PTFE) bottles are used. So you really do need the correct plastic container and you definitely wouldn't want to use a standard household bath. In the programme Jesse uses a face mask but the HF fumes will readily attack exposed skin (arms, neck etc.). The fumes from the many litres in the bathroom would have had dire consequences for them and the house.

Perhaps the most famous real-life acid-bath criminal case involved John George Haigh. When police arrested him he told them that "Mrs Durand-Deacon no longer exists, I've destroyed her with acid. You can't prove murder without a body". He went on to admit to eight other murders where he disposed of the body in sulphuric acid baths. Police eventually found remains which had been reduced to sludge but gallstones and part of a plastic denture survived confirming the woman's identity. Haigh was eventually hanged for his crimes in 1949 [3].

[1] Breaking Bad, episode one of the first series, DVD, Sony Pictures, 2008
[2] 1st programme of the first series, see InfoChem, issue 127, March 2011.
[3] click here for details of John Haigh


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Dr Jonathan Hare, The University of Sussex
Brighton, East Sussex. BN1 9QJ.

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