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Crime-scene cleaners are usually "secondary responders" -- they arrive after the police, firefighters, paramedics and coroner. The scene is typically already secured, but the clean-up crew needs to confirm this and continue to make sure the public can't enter the scene, because it's a biohazard. The most common clean-up scenes include:
- Violent death (homicide/suicide/accidental)
- Decomp (a decomposing body)
- Methamphetamine labs
In all of these clean-ups, the cleaners arrive with the same equipment. Once they assess the scene and the damage, they have a lot of tools to choose from to help them return the room, apartment or house to its pre-incident state.
Their gear typically includes:
- Personal protective gear - a non-porous, one-time-use suit, gloves, filtered respirators and chemical-spill boots
- Biohazard waste containers - 55-gallon heavy duty bags and sealed, hard-plastic containers
- Traditional cleaning supplies - Mops, buckets, spray bottles, sponges, brushes, etc.
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- Hard-core cleaning supplies - Can include:
- Ozone machine (to remove odors)
- Foggers (to thicken a cleaning chemical so it can get all the way into tight places like air ducts, usually for odor removal)
- Hospital-grade disinfectants (bleach, hydrogen peroxide)
- Industrial-strength deodorizers
- Enzyme solvent (to kill bacteria and viruses and liquify dried blood)
- No-touch cleaning system (to clean blood-coated surfaces from a safe distance -- includes heavy-duty sprayer, long scrubbing brush, wet vacuum)
- Putty knives (to scrape up brain matter, which dries into a cement-like consistency)
- Razor blades (to cut out portions of carpet)
- Shovels (in about two hours, large amounts of blood coagulate into a Jell-O-like goo that can be shoveled into bags)
- Truck-mounted steam-injection machine (to melt dried brain matter that cleaners can't remove with putty knives)
- Chemical treatment tank (to disinfect and store matter sucked up by vacuum systems)
- Carpentry/restoration tools - sledgehammers, saws, spackle, paint brushes
- Camera (to take before-and-after shots for insurance purposes)
- Van or truck for transporting all of this stuff (and hauling waste to disposal site after clean-up)
Each type of clean-up scene comes with its own unique horrors, none of which seem to bother the people who do this job. In the case of a violent death, there are bodily fluids to deal with, each tiny drop carrying germs, bacteria and, possibly, infectious diseases. In something like a suicide where a person cuts his wrists or shoots himself in the head, there's tons of blood; if someone is shot in the chest, though, there's very little blood because the lungs suck it in. But no matter how much of it there is, the cleaners have to approach it as if it were carrying bloodborne pathogens like HIV, hepatitis and hantavirus.
The thing about crime-scene clean-up is that the scene has to be truly clean, not just apparently clean. In addition to the infection that can result from bloodborne pathogens, any bodily fluids that remain in floors, carpets, baseboards or walls can lead to mold, bacteria and fungus, which can cause sickness months or years later.
To truly clean the scene of a messy homicide, suicide, accidental death or undiscovered death and restore the area to its previous state can take anywhere from an hour to 40 hours. It all depends on the "degree of trauma" and the amount of biohazardous material at the site. Cleaners use a hospital grade disinfectant to wipe or scrub every drop of blood off of all surfaces, including counters, ceilings, walls, light fixtures, little glass trinkets, family pictures, artwork and appliances. They scrape brain matter off of walls and collect any bone fragments embedded in the drywall. They rip out and discard any blood-soaked carpeting and get rid of any blood-soaked upholstery, window treatments or rugs. Sometimes, they need to collect and remove small pieces of the body -- the coroner takes most of it, but if it was a particularly violent death, there may parts left behind.
In a decomp, the scene is usually not quite as spread out as in a violent death, but a decomposing body can be even more gruesome than a suicide. A body that has been deceased for days, weeks or months has gone through some changes. In decomposition, the body swells, insects move in, the organs digest themselves and the skin liquifies. It's not pretty, but most people will tell you that the sight of a decomposing body can't compare to the smell. Most people are brought to their knees by that smell, which is partly a result of ammonia gas released during decomposition. The coroner removes the body before the clean-up starts, but usually leaves behind lots of liquefied body matter and odors as well as maggots that are carrying the person's blood. In addition to cleaning up the mess, cleaners sometimes have to track down and kill (by burning) any maggots that scurry out of the body and try to hide, because they're carrying germs and might be carrying viruses.
The scene of a methamphetamine lab, on the other hand, typically doesn't have the "gross factor" of a death scene, but it's often a lot more dangerous to clean up in terms of health risks. The laundry list of poisons used to make street-grade methamphetamine (including acetone, methanol, ammonia, benzene, iodine and hydrochloric acid) leaves a toxic residue that coats and infuses every surface and stays in the air. Most of these poisonous substances are absorbed through the skin, making a meth lab one of the most dangerous places a person can walk into. Exposure to a meth lab can cause reproductive disorders, birth defects, blindness, lung damage, liver damage and kidney damage, and that's just for starters. The scene remains toxic indefinitely unless it's properly cleaned -- an apartment that housed a meth lab can make its tenants sick a decade after the lab has been removed.
Proper clean-up of a meth lab involves disposing of everything porous and everything that can't be submerged in detoxification chemicals (several times). Crime-scene cleaners get rid of all furniture, cabinetry, light fixtures, carpeting, electronics ... basically everything that isn't part of the structure. And in the worst cases, they also dispose of most of the structure -- they sometimes have to pull up all of the flooring and gut the walls, removing all of the drywall until nothing remains but studs.
Regardless of the type of scene, the final step in any clean-up is disposing of the evidence (unless the owners of the apartment or house have contracted the cleaners to do restoration work as well). This is actually a more complicated task than it may seem. You can't put hazardous or biohazardous waste in regular trash dump. Crime-scene cleaners need a special permit to transport it. To dispose of it, in the case of the blood and gore they have to pay (typically by the pound) to burn it in a medical-waste incinerator. Some incinerators have minimum amounts they'll burn, so the cleaning company might have to pay to store the refuse in a sealed, refrigerated area until they've collected the minimum amount. In the case of poisonous chemical waste, you can only dump it in special areas not accessible to the public, which costs additional cash. Transporting and disposing of waste can be a big percentage of a clean-up bill.
If cleaning up blood and brains and poisonous waste all sounds perfectly manageable to you, you might be a candidate for a career in crime-scene clean-up. In the next section, we'll take a look at the job and who's qualified to do it.