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Credit: Robert Rathe

Breaking bad at NIST

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) appears to have been the unwitting victim of a real-life Walter White, the meth-cooking chemistry teacher in the hit television show Breaking Bad. A weekend explosion at the federal laboratory’s Gaithersburg, Maryland, campus was linked yesterday to the production of methamphetamine, an illegal stimulant often “cooked” in home laboratories. Federal and local law enforcement agencies are now investigating how the explosion happened and whether a NIST security guard injured in the blast might have been involved.

“Just as in any investigation … we’re interviewing possible witnesses and letting the evidence take us just where it should,” said Montgomery County Police Department spokesman Captain Paul Starks, who added that no charges have been filed and no suspects publicly identified.

On Saturday, 18 July, an explosion rocked the NIST campus around 6:45 p.m., injuring the security guard and sending the institute’s fire and police forces flocking to the scene, Starks said. The explosion happened at “special projects” building 236, a smaller facility with laboratories reserved for particularly hazardous research. According to NIST spokeswoman Gail Porter, the lab in question was not in use at the time of the incident, but was transitioning from combustion research to a new project.

The guard, who suffered non–life-threatening burns, resigned on 19 July, Porter said.

The Associated Press has reported that Epsom salts and other materials associated with meth production were found in the lab, whereas one local television news station quoted federal law enforcement sources saying that pseudoephedrine, drain opener, and a recipe for meth were also found. Citing the ongoing investigation—which is being carried out jointly by Montgomery County and the Drug Enforcement Agency—Starks said only that “some evidence” indicates that drugs such as methamphetamine were being manufactured. He would not confirm whether materials used for the creation of controlled substances were being stored on the property or brought onto the property.

Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), chairman at the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, got involved today, expressing grave concern over the incident in a letter to Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker. NIST is part of the Commerce Department.

“I am troubled by the allegations that such dangerous and illicit activity went undetected at a federal research facility. It is essential that we determine exactly where the breakdown in protocol occurred and whether similar activities could be ongoing at other federal facilities,” wrote Smith in an accompanying press release. He has requested a briefing with NIST no later than 29 July.