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Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D.

Breaking Bad - Ricin Beans

By March 10, 2009

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Handful of castor beans. (Anne Helmenstine)
Rice n' Beans, get it? I thought that was an excellent bit of scripting in the first episode of Breaking Bad's second season. Each episode contains a tasty morsel of chemistry. This week concerned ricin, a potent poison that is prepared from castor beans. In the show, Walt White cautions Jesse to not even touch the castor beans that he has obtained. As you can see from my photo, I don't have any fear of touching castor beans. In fact, these are beans I'm planting in my garden to help repel pests. It's theoretically possible to poison yourself with castor beans, but it is a lot a harder than most people seem to think. You would have to thoroughly chew about 8 of the large beans to absorb a lethal dose of ricin. Swallowing the beans without chewing them won't poison you. Preparing ricin as a poison requires a bit of chemistry know-how.

Having said that, if you happen to have purified ricin, like our heroes do after Walt prepares it, then a dose about the size of a grain of salt could be enough to kill someone. Walt can either cause his victim to breathe in the dust or eat/drink it or inject it somehow. You don't immediately keel over dead from ricin poisoning. A few hours after exposure, you would start to feel very sick. Your symptoms would depend on how you were poisoned. If you breathed ricin, you would start to cough, feel nauseous, and find yourself short of breath. Your lungs would fill up with fluid. Low blood pressure and respiratory failure could lead to death. If you ate or drank the ricin you would suffer cramping, vomiting, and bloody diarrhea. You would become extremely dehydrated. Death would result from liver and kidney failure. Injected ricin would cause swelling and pain in the muscles and lymph nodes near the site of the injection. As the poison worked its way outward, internal bleeding would occur and death would result from multiple organ failure. Ricin poisoning is not easy to detect, but it is not necessarily fatal, even though it is unlikely medical staff would identify the underlying cause. Death usually occurs 36-48 hours after exposure, but if a victim survives a few days, he has a good chance of recovering (though he will almost certainly have permanent organ damage).

So, those are Walt's options for his ricin. If he uses the poison, it isn't likely he would get caught. Ricin poisoning isn't contagious, so he probably won't harm anyone except his victim, though carrying around a potent toxin is a bit risky when you are dealing with druggies who sniff everything that comes in a small bag. It will be interesting to see what happens.

Breaking Bad Chemistry | Ricin Fact Sheet


November 4, 2009 at 10:14 pm
(1) Fritz says:

New fan of Breaking Bad. Just watched first season DVDs. Question: Is or was there a periodic table arranged like the one they use with Br and Ba conveniently placed?

April 25, 2011 at 6:43 am
(2) Joe A says:

If you watch more closely you will notice your eyes have been fooled. The “Br” is shown in the foreground from the right side of the chart. The “Br” is kept as the rest of the chart fades out. At the same time the “Ba” and the rest of the left side of the chart fade in and you see both the “Br” and the “Ba”. Then what remains of the chart fades out except the “Br” and the “Ba”. Coincedently the “Br” ends up in the position “Rb” would normally be.

May 7, 2010 at 9:44 pm
(3) Eric says:

Ricin is a Lectin. Lectins have been studied for over 60 years, known for their effect of agglutinating (sticking together) red blood cells. What’s scary is we eat foods with lectins all the time. Read Eat Right for Your Type, by Peter D’Adamo, ND.

March 29, 2011 at 1:59 pm
(4) Wizard Hannah says:

This is rather question then comment. Could someone smoke ricin? Mix tobacco with ricin or joint? Or is it thermal unstable?

October 25, 2011 at 1:55 am
(5) ChemMan2000 says:

I thought of the Ricin Beans/Rice n’ Beans thing before they did!

February 1, 2012 at 12:16 pm
(6) Jr. says:

Someone could easily say you are not a big fan of BB given you are against every aspect of chemistry on which the show is based on. You forget that Walt is potrayed as an underachieving chemistry genius. That assumption alone makes all that chemistry believable.

August 30, 2012 at 2:00 pm
(7) E says:

You can be a fan of something, and still enjoy looking at the realism (or lack therof) behind it! For me, that’s one of the enjoyable parts of watching shows like this.

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