The Breaking Bad finale was a satisfying ending to a great series, but it still leaves many loose threads for viewers. Perhaps none is so troubling for dentists as the explanation for why they can’t use dental records to identify the two bodies found in the ruins of the meth lab under the laundry. Hank’s former partner and still trusted friend Steven Gomez remarks that in the fire, the people’s teeth did “this popcorn thing”: exploding so that dental records could not be used to identify the bodies.
But would this really happen? And if it did, would it really make the bodies impossible to identify?
The short answer to this is, yes, but there are many factors that go into whether this occurs or not. The basis for the assertion comes partly from cremation experience, in which the furnace is heated to 1600° F, though the actual temperature inside can reach up to 2300° F because of the combustion of body fat. Under these conditions, the teeth do pop like popcorn because the crown of the tooth contains moisture within that expands and evaporates when heated, bursting outward.
Although the teeth would burst outward like popcorn, this does not mean that the dental records would not be useful in potentially making an identification for many reasons.
First, the tooth roots are not usually destroyed in the same way as the crowns. In many cases, the tooth root may contain all the information necessary to make an identification, such as the positions and condition of the teeth, including root canals.
Second, sinuses and other distinctive jaw structures can also be used to make identifications. Facial x-rays contain sinus information, and new larger-scale dental x-rays often contain information about sinuses and the jaw joints which may be useful in identification.
Finally, dental work would make teeth more identifiable. Cavities and fillings act as “pressure relief valves,” allowing teeth that have been worked on to remain intact. Since these are the teeth that are most likely to give identifying information and because dental restorations like dental implants, partial dentures, or ceramic crowns would still survive, dental records would still be useful.
These may seem like small shreds of evidence, but dental record identification is never intended to pick a single suspect out of the entire population, but is instead used to pick individuals out of a small pool of likely candidates, and they could still perform that role despite fire damage. The throwaway line was just used as a plausible explanation for why people might believe Heisenberg died in the fire and not keep looking, and it serves that role well enough in the series, but doesn’t stand up under scrutiny.
If you are looking for a dentist in Spokane or Spokane Valley, please contact Collins Dentistry & Aesthetics.
Or office in Spokane is located at:
3151 E. 28th Ave.
Spokane, WA 99223
Office phone # 509-368-7788