If you’re a fan of the Breaking Bad TV series, you might remember that this was the acid that Jess Pinkman used to dissolve a body in his bathtub, the tub that eventually was eroded by this acid and came crashing through the ceiling.
Ironically, when hydrofluoric acid comes into contact with skin, it initially causes painless burns. Several hours after exposure, however—even after washing the skin—deep, irreversible and painful damage can result and tissue death follows shortly after.
But the damage doesn’t stop at the skin’s surface. After contact, the acid interrupts the body’s calcium metabolism and causes systemic toxicity. As the body’s calcium balance is further disturbed, systemic calcium metabolism is halted. This can lead to cardiac arrest and death. And it doesn’t take much to create this cascading lethal effect. As little as 25 square inches (a 5”x5” area) of affected skin can lead to death.
For example, a drink laden with hydrofluoric acid spilled on someone’s clothing could be considered accidental and easily forgotten. But, over a period of a few hours, the person’s skin would begin to dissolve, calcium metabolism would be interrupted and the person could die from a heart attack.
It’s easy to see how this acid could be an intriguing method of killing off a character in your novel and still not have it link back to the murderer since visible damage may not appear until hours after exposure.
As one might expect, the degree of tissue damage and the resulting lethal effects of this acid depend on the amount, the route, and length of time of exposure.
For instance, if this acid were added to someone’s eye drops or a nasal spray, the systemic damage would be accelerated due to the greater absorption rate of the acid into ocular tissue and mucous membranes.
If used as a nasal spray, lung tissue damage is assured. Lung tissue swelling and fluid accumulation could cause an irreversible pulmonary edema and the victim would essentially drown in his or her own fluids—thereby allowing a writer to create a rather dramatic murder scene.
And swallowing only a small amount of highly concentrated hydrofluoric acid will cause major organ damage and, more often than not, result in a painful death.
Furthermore, if the person suspects that he or she has been poisoned and vomiting is induced, then the tissue damage is enhanced throughout the upper GI tract. This results in even greater absorption of the chemical into mucosal tissue and a more effective shutdown of systemic calcium metabolism. In short, the end result of induced vomiting is a more rapid advancement to cardiac arrest.
One of the reasons this poison would make such a great murder weapon is that hydrofluoric acid is readily available in auto parts stores. It’s one of the main ingredients in aluminum wheel cleaners.
I have not yet had the chance to use this interesting chemical as a death tool in a murder scene, but the possibilities are intriguing and as numerous as the routes of administration for this versatile poison.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!