Can You Really Dissolve a Human Body in Acid Like in Breaking Bad
In the second episode of the acclaimed television series Breaking Bad, high school chemistry teacher-turned-drug kingpin Walter White and his accomplice Jesse Pinkman find themselves in a rather sticky situation. Having just killed two drug dealers who kidnapped and forced them to cook methamphetamine at gunpoint, the pair must now find a way to dispose of the bodies. Drawing on his extensive knowledge of chemistry, Walt comes up with a cunning plan: dissolve the bodies in hydrofluoric acid. While Walt steals the requisite chemicals from his school lab, he sends Jesse to find a suitably large container to dissolve the bodies in, specifying that the container must be made out of polyethylene plastic. Unfortunately, Walt fails to explain the reasoning for this choice, and after failing to find a large enough container, Jesse simply places one of the bodies in a regular bathtub, pours the acid over it, and calls it a day. This turns out to be a mistake, for hours later the ceiling suddenly collapses in a spray of acid and gory pink chunks of flesh, the acid having dissolved not only the body but the enamelled-metal bathtub and the floor beneath it. Whoopsa-doodle…
While the show’s creators have claimed that the chemistry in the show is as accurate as they could make it, they have also admitted to fudging the truth in places to prevent viewers from trying Walt and Jesse’s chemical antics at home. So, just how realistic is the dynamic duo’s plan for dissolving a body? Can Hydrofluoric acid actually reduce 80 kilograms of flesh and bone to a pink paste within hours?
Alas for all you aspiring drug kingpins out there, the answer is no. Indeed, it is curious that an expert chemist like Walter White would choose hydrofluoric acid as his corporeal solvent – not only because this chemical is particularly ill-suited to the task of dissolving human flesh, but because it so dangerous that Walt and Jesse were lucky not to have wound up dead themselves.
Hydrofluoric acid or HF consists of a fluorine atom bonded to a hydrogen atom and, like all acids, will dissociate into its component ions when diluted in water. Because fluorine is one of the most reactive elements on the periodic table, hydrofluoric acid readily etches glass and silicon and will dissolve most metals except for nickel, gold, platinum, or silver; and most plastic except for polyethylene, teflon, natural rubber, and neoprene – so Walt was at least right on that front. Yet despite this corrosiveness, hydrofluoric acid is not, strangely enough, considered a strong acid. This is because the formal definition of a “strong acid” is one which completely dissociates when diluted in water, releasing large amounts of hydrogen ions. Indeed, the term “pH”, used to denote the strength of acids and bases, stands for “potential of hydrogen.” Because fluorine is so reactive, it holds tightly onto its hydrogen ion and dissociates only partially in water, technically making it a weak acid. The upshot of this rather confusing chemical terminology is that when it comes to acids, “strong” does not necessarily mean “corrosive,” since the corrosiveness of an acid depends not on its hydrogen but of the other, negatively-charged ion. Indeed, the strongest acids known to science, the carborane superacids, are millions of times stronger than concentrated sulphuric acid, but will not attack organic tissue.
…and, as it turns out, neither will hydrofluoric acid. In the 10th episode of the 11th season of the Discovery Channel series Mythbusters, hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman teamed up with Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan to investigate some of the show’s chemical claims, including the feasibility of dissolving a body in hydrofluoric acid. To test this myth, the Mythbusters placed the carcass of a pig in an enamelled cast-iron bathtub, poured hydrofluoric acid over it, and waited. And waited. And waited. Disappointingly, even after several hours, the pig carcass remained completely intact, with not a hint of the chunky pink goo from the television series. Nor did the enamel tub show any signs of erosion. At first glance this seems strange, given the extreme reactiveness and corrosiveness of fluorine. However, fluorine is so reactive that when dissolved in water, it tends to bond strongly with other elements, greatly reducing its corrosive power and making it all but useless for disposing of bodies. Indeed, hydrofluoric acid is far more dangerous to the living than to the dead. Readily absorbed through the skin or through the lungs as a vapour, hydrofluoric acid produces severe chemical burns that are initially painless and do not become apparent until a day or so after exposure. But as nasty as that is, it gets much, much worse, for once inside the body hydrofluoric acid becomes an insidious poison, aggressively leaching calcium out of the bones and other tissues. Unfortunately, calcium just happens to be used by the body to signal muscle cells – including those of the heart – to contract. Thus, had Walt and Jesse accidentally absorbed a large enough dose of acid through their skin or lungs, they would likely have died of cardiac arrest several hours later and the whole series would have been considerably shorter.
So, if not hydrofluoric acid, what, then, could Walt and Jesse have used to carry out their nefarious deed? Surprisingly, some of the most effective chemicals for dissolving organic tissue are conveniently some of the easiest to obtain – such as sulphuric acid, commonly found in car batteries. Sulphuric acid or H2SO4 is, unlike HF, both a strong and highly corrosive acid. A powerful hydrolyzing agent, it aggressively dehydrates organic compounds such as carbohydrates and proteins, stripping them of their hydrogen and oxygen and leaving carbon behind. In one classic classroom demonstration, concentrated sulphuric acid is added to a beaker of ordinary white sugar, unleashing a violently exothermic reaction that released hot steam and sulphur oxides and leaves behind a spongy black mass composed of nearly pure carbon. Sulphuric acid is also better at dissolving the calcium apatite in animal bones than other chemicals. For these reasons, sulphuric acid has long been a favourite tool of murderers looking to make their victims disappear without a trace. One infamous case was that of George-Alexandre Sarret, a French lawyer and con artist who in the 1920s carried out an elaborate insurance scheme with the help of two of his lovers, sisters Catherine and Philomène Schmidt. The scheme involved the sisters marrying unhealthy men, on whom Sarret would take out large life insurance policies. A third accomplice, Louis Chambon-Duverger, would pose as the husbands and undergo the requisite medical examination for the insurance policies to be approved. The husbands would then be killed with poison – their ill health preventing a criminal investigation – and the spoils divided up among the conspirators. While the scheme worked, in 1925 Sarret decided that Chambon-Duverger was getting too greedy, and murdered both him and his mistress, Noémie Ballandraux, dissolving their bodies in a vat of sulphuric acid to eliminate the evidence. The crime went unsolved for nearly six years, until in 1931 Catherine Schmidt was arrested for committing another insurance fraud and confessed to her previous crime. Sarret was arrested, tried, convicted for murder, and sentenced to death, being executed by guillotine on April 10, 1934. And for more on the sordid history of this infamous execution device, please check out our video The Last Guillotining Execution…in 1977 on our sister channel Highlight History.
Though Sarret was eventually caught and executed, the effectiveness of his chemical disappearing act would inspire another criminal across the English Channel. Born in 1909 in Stamford, Lincolnshire, John Haigh began his criminal career in the mid-1930s by posing as a solicitor and selling fraudulent stock shares – purportedly from former deceased clients – at below-market rates. However, due to a spelling error on his letterhead, he was soon caught and sentenced to four years in prison for fraud. Upon his release, Haigh vowed to never again leave a victim alive to accuse him. In 1940, Haigh ran into a former employer, William McSwan, at a pub and was soon introduced to McSwan’s parents, Donald and Amy. William collected rent from several properties owned by his parents, and Haigh soon grew envious of his wealth and lifestyle. So, on September 6, 1944, Haigh lured William McSwan into a basement, hit him over the head with a lead pipe, and – inspired by the case of George-Alexandre Sarret – dumped his body in a 45-gallon oil drum of concentrated sulphuric acid. The body took two days to dissolve, whereupon Haigh poured what remained down a manhole. Haigh then went to McSwan’s parents and informed them that William was hiding out in Scotland in order to avoid military service. Over the following year Haigh took over rent collection from William McSwan, but when the war ended and his parents began to wonder why their son had not returned, Haigh decided to kill them as well. And so, on July 2, 1945, Haigh lured Donald and Amy McSwan into a basement, clubbed them over the head, and dissolved their bodies in acid. He then stole their pension cheques, sold their rental properties for £8000, and moved into the Onslow Court Hotel in Kensington.
While Haigh should have been set for life, he was also an inveterate gambler and soon found himself back in dire financial straits. So, in 1947, he befriended the couple Archibald and Rose Henderson and on February 12 lured them into a rented workshop, shot them dead, and – I hope you’re beginning to see a pattern here – dissolved their bodies in sulphuric acid. He then forged a will with their signatures and sold their possessions for another £8000.
Haigh’s last victim was Olive Durant-Deacon, the 69-year-old widow of wealthy solicitor John Durant-Deacon, whom Haigh befriended on the pretence of being an engineer interested in Olive’s idea for artificial fingernails. On February 18, 1949, the same macabre dance repeated itself as Haigh lured Durant Deacon to his workshop, shot her dead, and dissolved her body in acid. This time, however, Haigh would fall victim to his own haste and chequered past. Two days after the murder, one of Durant-Deacon’s friends reported her missing. The police soon discovered Haigh’s long history of fraud and theft and searched the workshop, where they discovered a pile of incriminating evidence, including a dry-cleaning receipt for Durant-Deacon’s Persian wool coat, which Haigh had removed before dissolving her body. Even worse, unlike previous workshops Haigh had rented for his nefarious deeds, the one used to kill and dissolve Olive Durant-Deacon had no floor drain, so Haigh simply dumped her liquefied remains over a rubble pile behind the property. An examination of the pile revealed 28 pounds of human body fat, part of a human foot, gallstones, and part of a denture that was eventually identified as belonging to Olive Durant-Deacon. Haigh, dubbed by the press the “Acid Bath Murderer”, was arrested, tried, and convicted of murder, meeting his fate at the end of a hangman’s rope in August 10, 1949.
In more recent years, the Sicilian Mafia has become infamous for its “lupara Bianca” or “white shotgun” murders, in which victims mysteriously disappear without a trace. According to former hitman Filippo Marchese, who worked under mafia boss Vincenso Chiaracane until his own death in 1982, this is accomplished using concentrated sulphuric acid, which he claimed could completely liquefy a corpse in as little as 15 minutes. However, given the two previous examples we have covered, this claim seems rather dubious, and in 2011 a group led by researcher Massimo Grillo at the University of Palermo set out to test the former mafioso’s claims. Using pigs as an analogue for humans, the team placed various cuts of tissue and bone in different concentrations of sulphuric acid and timed how long it took for them to dissolve. Unsurprisingly, this took far longer than Marchese had claimed – on the order of two days with concentrated acid. By diluting the acid in water, the researchers were able to cut this time down to 12 hours for muscle and cartilage, but it still took two days for the bone to dissolve – and even then the process left behind large, fragile bone fragments with the consistency of shortbread which still had to be pulverized by hand. Another team at the University of Milan obtained similar results, with lead researcher Cristina Cattaneo concluding:
“…it is conceivable that a possible attempt to destroy an entire body… is a thoroughly different task from destroying small samples.”
For a more effective means of destroying evidence, you are better off moving to the other end of the pH scale and using a strong alkali – specifically sodium or potassium hydroxide – better known as lye. Lye is also a powerful hydrolyzing agent, with the added benefit that it is more effective than acids at breaking down the protein keratin that makes up hair and fingernails. Indeed, this is why it is commonly sold for clearing clogged drains. Furthermore, it is much easier to obtain lye in large quantities without arousing suspicion – for example, for making homemade soap – whereas strong acids are more heavily regulated since they can be used to manufacture explosives. Indeed, immersion in lye is the preferred body-disposal method for Mexican drug cartels, who rather darkly refer to the process as “making pozole” – a traditional Mexican meat stew – while highway departments, hospitals, and universities use lye-based “digesters” to dispose of roadkill, laboratory animals, human cadavers donated for medical research, and other biological waste. Heated to 100 degrees Celsius – the boiling point of water – a concentrated lye solution can dissolve a body in as little as 2 hours. Pressurizing the digester vessel allows the temperature to be raised even higher, further accelerating the process. In the end, all that remains is a light brown liquid composed mainly of water and amino acids and a handful of crumbling bone fragments – both of which can be safely flushed down a regular drain.
The efficiency of this process has led to its emergence as a green alternative to cremation for disposing of human corpses. Known as “aquamation,” the process consumes only one-eighth of the energy and emits one-tenth the greenhouse gasses as traditional cremation, with the added bonus of not emitting toxic heavy metals – such as mercury from dental fillings – into the environment. The bone fragments that remain can be pulverized in a machine called a cremulator, producing a fine white powder that can be placed in an urn, buried, or scattered in place of traditional ashes. First patented in 1888, aquamation was not offered commercially until the 1980s – and then only for disposing of pets. Only recently has it begun to gain traction within the human funeral industry, with Minnesota being the first US state to legalize the process in 2003. Ten more states soon followed, the most recent being California in 2020. However, the funeral industry is very resistant to change, and 11 states have passed legislation banning aquamation outright. It remains to be seen whether the process will ever catch up to or supplant burial and cremation as the dominant method of body disposal in the United States.
But while dissolution in lye is by far the easiest and most effective way of disposing of a body, it isn’t that interesting to look at. But thankfully for murderers and mafiosos with a taste for the dramatic, there is a more exciting option: piranha solution. Mainly used in analytical laboratories for cleaning traces of organic materials off glassware or silicon wafers, piranha solution is composed of concentrated hydrogen peroxide or H2O2 mixed with sulphuric acid. As covered in our previous video The German Rocket Fighter that Dissolved its Pilots Alive, concentrated hydrogen peroxide – also known as High Test Peroxide or HTP – is so reactive and corrosive it can strip flesh from bone in seconds. Mixing it with sulphuric acid combines the oxidation of the former with the hydrolization of the latter, producing a powerful one-two chemical punch. So effective is piranha solution at dissolving organic tissue that a piece of meat and bone lowered into it will disappear almost as soon as it hits the surface. This deadly efficiency was dramatically illustrated by the Mythbusters, who followed up their hydrofluoric acid test by immersing another pig carcass in piranha solution. This time the solution reacted immediately and violently, producing copious quantities of heat and steam and reducing the pig to a dark-green oily soup within minutes.
But while quick, efficient, and dramatic, piranha solution suffers from the same problem as sulphuric and other strong acids: the sale of its ingredients is tightly regulated, creating a highly-incriminating paper trail. Indeed, even in cases where a criminal managed to successfully make a body disappear, this paper trail is often enough to crack the investigation wide open. Take the case of American chemist Larissa Schuster, who in 2003 along with her lab assistant James Fagone murdered her ex-husband Tim Schuster and dissolved his body in a barrel of hydrochloric acid. Police investigators quickly uncovered receipts for the purchase of the acid and the rental of a storage unit, a search of which turned up the barrel containing Tim Schuster’s remains. In 2008, Larissa Schuster was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
In conclusion, for all its chemical verisimilitude, Breaking Bad was dead wrong about dissolving bodies. Not only is hydrofluoric acid possibly the worst choice for the job, but even the most corrosive chemicals like sulphuric acid and sodium hydroxide can take hours or even days to get the job done – and even then they often leave readily-identifiable fragments – and an incriminating paper trail of suspicious purchases – behind. So if you ever find yourself looking for the best way to dispose of a body, take a moment to reflect on how you got to this place. Chances are, you have much bigger problems to deal with.
If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:
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