1. Education

Discuss in my forum

Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D.

Elements in the Body - Breaking Bad

By February 16, 2008

Follow me on:

You may remember in the second episode of AMC's dark comedy/drama Breaking Bad, Jesse dissolved a body using hydrofluoric acid in a bathtub. That didn't go particularly well, so the third episode opens with Walt and Jesse scooping up bucketfuls of pink glop. This gets Walt pondering what makes up a man. The answer? Mainly oxygen. 99% of the mass of the human body is made up of just six elements: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus. Many other elements are present in trace amounts. Of course, the meth-making chemistry teacher was speculating about souls, but that's not something quantifiable using chromatography or spectroscopy.

I was surprised by how many readers have large volumes of hydrofluoric acid in their labs. What do you use it for? Industrially, HF is used to make drugs, refrigerants, and plastics. It is used to purify aluminum and uranium. It can etch glass, remove impurities from silicon, pickle steel, and catalyze alkylation reactions in oil refining. Geologists and rock hounds sometimes use it to dissolve rock samples. You may have a little hydrofluoric acid in your home if you have certain rust removal or wheel cleaning products. Otherwise... why have jugs of it? If you have an answer, by all means, post a comment to the blog.

Another thing I found myself wondering was why a high school chemistry teacher would have a gas mask. Walt neutralizes the hydrofluoric acid with baking soda. That's nice and all, but just because the goo isn't corrosive, it doesn't mean the mess is safe. All that fluorine went somewhere. I don't think sprinkling any amount of baking soda would get me on my hands and knees with nothing except a mask, lab apron, and gloves between me and that toxic waste.

List of Elements in the Body | Photo Gallery of Body Elements
Photo: 65% of the mass of the human body is oxygen, shown here in its liquid form. (Warwick Hillier, Australia National University, Canberra) Add to Technorati Favorites

Comments

February 17, 2008 at 5:41 am
(1) Bruce says:

We have lots of HF on site (up to 1000lt at a time = industrial use). Neutralising the acid with bicarb limits the attack on flesh, but not the toxicity problem. Better to have used white lime – the calcium hydroxide would neutralise the acid and the Ca++ ion would lock up the fluorine as CaF2 – an insoluble white mass of low contact toxicity.

August 18, 2008 at 2:14 pm
(2) Candace says:

I don’t think they teach the students enough about lab safety in the classes. Students leave the bottles of solvent open all the time, hardly ever wear gloves, don’t always do reactions under the hoods etc. Not that they’re defiant… they just don’t understand the toxicity of what they’re working with. I don’t think they understand the need to respect the chemicals.

December 11, 2009 at 6:57 am
(3) faelsinnes says:

come on kids, it’s just a tv show, not a chemistry lesson.
the purpose is to entertain, not educate or incite you to “cook” crystal meth, nor is it to teach you about explosives. There are enough idiots out there playing with that shit, especially govt’s.
When the brother in law had cancer, all he wanted to do was watch “Only Fools & Horses” & the horse racing, he laost interest in work, money & women. But hey we’re all different ( thank darwen/the lord/allah or your parents)

March 15, 2011 at 7:11 pm
(4) Eden says:

*Darwin…

July 4, 2011 at 2:14 pm
(5) Kevin says:

We use HF along with water and Sulfuric to digest Titanium samples for ICP analysis in teflon beakers, but you have to keep track of your HF concentration for the sample as HF will mess up an ICAP machine. In certain cases we would have to use another extra step to get rid of the HF before diluting / running the sample.

March 15, 2012 at 3:26 pm
(6) R says:

I agree with the guy that suggests the lime as a nuetralizer, and as far as being that close with minimum protection, Could it be why Walt is a CANCER PATIENT ??? Makes you think ay? And as far as the coment about kids leaving solvents open and poor saftey practices, How about the crap moms and maids use to clean with ?? Ever get any easyoff oven crap on you?? I have worst chemical burn I ever had, and I work in labs for a living!!

October 19, 2012 at 2:37 pm
(7) ^Big says:

I confirm that industrial liquid waste containing HF are often decontaminated with CaOH, so that solid CaF2 can be disposed of separetely.

@ Kevin: HF resistant nebulizers and torches do exist for ICP.

Leave a Comment


Line and paragraph breaks are automatic. Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title="">, <b>, <i>, <strike>
Top Related Searches
  • elements in the body
  • ©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.