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How Crime-scene Clean-up Works


David and Christian Cadieux run Toronto Crime Scene Cleanup, a company specializing in biological and chemical clean-up in Toronto.
David and Christian Cadieux run Toronto Crime Scene Cleanup, a company specializing in biological and chemical clean-up in Toronto.
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Death, people say, can be messy. It's bandied about in a figurative way, as in the complexities of human existence. But death can be literally messy, and shockingly so. As in blood on the living room walls.

Most of us, if we're lucky, only know this from TV. "CSI" and "Law & Order" show us all the post-death activity. Police officers, paramedics, crime-scene investigators and coroners are at the scene of a violent incident, checking the victim, questioning, collecting evidence, recording the scene and finally removing the body. What you seldom see on TV is what happens after that: All those professionals gone, family members standing in a room still covered in blood, facing the prospect of living, even temporarily, with that scene. Because one thing those professionals do not do is clean it up.

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Removing the evidence of a violent death is the responsibility of the victim's family. And as recently as the early 2000s, there were very few cleaning companies that would handle that kind of job, so the family members had to do it themselves – an almost unimaginable task for the shocked and grieving. If ever there were a situation begging for capitalism to step in, this was it.

The late '90s saw the birth of a whole new industry called crime scene clean-up. That's the common name, anyway. It's more accurately called CTS decon – crime and trauma scene decontamination – since most of the events these cleaners deal with aren't crimes [source: Whitmarsh]. But crime or not, mopping up after a traumatic death is not only a potentially horrific task. It also requires a significant amount of training and special knowledge to complete properly, and companies charge hundreds of dollars an hour for their service. Most people, though, would pay even more. The job is hazardous, grueling and not for the faint-of-heart. Or stomach.

The Basics

Technicians contain an affected room by sealing with plastic sheeting, and then create an external "buffer zone" outside the room to control access and restrict cross contamination from affected materials.
Technicians contain an affected room by sealing with plastic sheeting, and then create an external "buffer zone" outside the room to control access and restrict cross contamination from affected materials.
Photo courtesy of Aftermath

CTS decon is a niche market within the cleaning industry, and it involves cleaning up dangerous material. This could mean the biologically contaminated scene of a violent death (homicide, suicide or accidental), the chemically contaminated scene of a methamphetamine lab, or an anthrax exposure site [source: Sahadi]. Crime-scene cleaners come in and restore the scene to its pre-incident state, known in the business as remediation.

When a violent death occurs in someone's home, the family typically doesn't move out [source: Darr]. The cleaners' job is to remove any sign of what happened and any biohazards that resulted from it. Federal regulations deem all bodily fluids to be biohazards, so any blood or tissue at a crime scene is considered a potential source of infection. You need special knowledge to safely handle biohazardous material and to know what to look for at the scene – for instance, if there's a thumbnail-size bloodstain on the carpet, there's a good chance that there's a 2-foot-diameter bloodstain on the floorboards underneath it. You can't just clean the carpet and call it a day. You also need permits to transport and dispose of biohazardous waste. CTS decon specialists have all of the necessary permits, training and, perhaps most important, willingness to handle material that would send most of us running out the door to throw up in the bushes. A lot of them come from medical fields that prepare them for the gore -- they may have been EMTs or emergency room nurses. A construction background is helpful, too, because some clean-ups (especially meth labs) require walls and built-in structures to be removed.

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Crime-scene cleaners handle a wide variety of messy situations – violent deaths, animal-hoarding sites, meth labs, even tear-gas clean-up – each of which carries its own particular dangers and unpleasantries. They are "secondary responders," arriving after the police, paramedics and coroner have left. The scene is typically already secured, ready for the crew to start their work.

The Clean-up

Tools of the trade -- cleaning supplies, PPE and HEPA air scrubber. The air scrubber can help remove particulates and odor, as well as some biohazardous airborne materials.
Tools of the trade -- cleaning supplies, PPE and HEPA air scrubber. The air scrubber can help remove particulates and odor, as well as some biohazardous airborne materials.
Photo courtesy of Aftermath

While CTS decon companies will clean up practically anything, the most common scenes they're called in to address are suicides, accidents and "unattended deaths" (a.k.a. decomposing bodies), according to Andrew Whitworth of Aftermath, Inc., an Illinois-based remediation company. And they arrive at these scenes with an enormous body of equipment. Once they assess the damage, they decide which tools will help them them return the room, house or business to its pre-incident state. The gear they choose from typically includes:

  • Personal protective gear: a non-porous, one-time-use suit; gloves; filtered respirators and chemical-spill boots
  • Biohazard waste containers: 55-gallon (208 liter) heavy duty bags and sealed, hard plastic containers
  • Traditional cleaning supplies: mops, buckets, spray bottles, sponges, brushes

Hard-core cleaning supplies (can include):

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  • 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
  • Industrial-strength deodorizers
  • Enzyme solvent (to kill bacteria and viruses and liquefy 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 jelly-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

Ladders

Camera (to take before-and-after shots for insurance purposes)

Van or truck for transporting all of the tools and for hauling waste to a disposal site

Each type of clean-up scene comes with its own unique horrors. In the case of a violent death, there are bodily fluids to deal with, each tiny drop carrying the possibility of infectious disease. 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.

That's part of why crime-scene restoration is a specialty in the cleaning industry. It has to go beyond cosmetic.

The Hazards: Blood and Guts

Cleaning up after a murder outside an apartment complex.
Cleaning up after a murder outside an apartment complex.
Photo courtesy of AMDECON

The site of a messy death poses dangers not everyone can see. In addition to the infection that can result from bloodborne pathogens, any bodily fluids that remain in floors, baseboards or walls can end up making people sick months or years later. The area has to be truly clean, not just apparently clean.

Cleaning up after a violent death can take anywhere from one hour to 40 hours or more [source: Sahadi]. It all depends on the type of trauma and the amount of biohazardous material at the site. Cleaners use hospital-grade disinfectant to wipe or scrub every drop of blood from all surfaces, including counters, ceilings, walls, light fixtures, 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 blood-soaked carpeting and remove 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.

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In a "decomp," the scene is usually not as spread out, but a decomposing body can be even more gruesome than a shooting or stabbing. A body that has been deceased for days, weeks or months has gone through some changes. After death, the body swells, insects move in, organs digest themselves and skin liquefies. It's not pretty, but most people will tell you that the sight of a decomposing body can't compare to the smell, which is partly a result of ammonia gas released during decomposition. The coroner removes the body but usually leaves behind lots of liquefied matter as well as maggots filled with the deceased's blood. In addition to cleaning up the mess, cleaners sometimes have to track down and burn any maggots that scurried out of the body, because they're carrying pathogens.

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.

The Hazards: Poison

This worker is packaging biohazardous waste for transport.
This worker is packaging biohazardous waste for transport.
Photo courtesy of NECSC

In terms of health risks, a meth lab clean-up is about as scary as it gets. 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 [source: International Association of Firefighters].

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Regardless of the type of scene, the final step in a clean-up is disposing of the evidence. You can't put hazardous or biohazardous waste in a regular trash dump, so transport and disposal can be a big percentage of a clean-up bill. Crime-scene cleaners need a special permit to transport that waste, and they have to pay special fees to dispose of it. In the case of human remains, 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 incurs additional fees.

If cleaning up blood and brains and poisonous waste sounds perfectly manageable to you, you might be a candidate for a career in crime-scene clean-up. Or then again, you may not. It's complicated.

The Job

Crime-scene cleanup is on most people's list of worst possible jobs, but it's not on everybody's. There are people who are well-suited to the work. To start with, a crime-scene cleaner needs at least three qualities: a strong stomach, the ability to rationally detach from his or her work, and a sympathetic nature. It can be an emotional job.

Crime-scene cleaners tread a delicate line between detachment and sensitivity, and not everyone can do it. Depressives are probably not great candidates for the work. Empaths shouldn't apply, either. In Whitmarsh's experience, "Getting too emotionally involved in the situation can lead to a negative outlook." Most companies will also reject people who show signs of voyeurism or a great enthusiasm for gore.

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If you pass the psychology test, you may move on to training – in bloodborne pathogens (learning the dangers, characteristics and proper safety procedures regarding the handling of bodily fluids), in the proper use of protective gear, and in the safe and legal transport and disposal of dangerous waste. Candidates also have to pass a "gross factor" test to make sure they can handle the work without throwing up. This ranges from a graphic visual presentation of previous clean-ups to an actual clean-up of animal remains.

Most of this preparation occurs through the crime-scene clean-up company, but it may also include training and certification programs offered by a trade group, like the American Bio-Recovery Association, or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Workers in this field have to get a Hepatitis B vaccine, as mandated by OSHA, and they need to be in good overall health and physical condition [source: Stephen]. A job might require eight hours of scrubbing in a plastic suit in close quarters in summer heat, as well as breaking through walls and moving furniture. The work is sporadic, but you're on call 24/7 (as Whitmarsh puts it, "tragedy has no schedule, which means you have no schedule"), so you're looking at a potentially exhausting job. People burn out pretty quickly.

It can be worth the trouble, though: In a field that doesn't require a college degree, pay averages about $40,000 per year, and it can be significantly higher in a big city with a lot of violent deaths and meth labs. Some who own their own businesses make in the six figures [source: Davidson, Sahadi].

Which brings us to an uncomfortable fact of crime-scene clean-up: The more people who die violently or alone, the more money crime-scene cleaners make.

The Business

Emotion and grossness aside, CTS decon is a business, and it can be lucrative. Charges vary considerably from company to company, but a base price up to $250 per hour is considered reasonable by the American Bio-Recovery Association, the industry's main certifying body [source: Kramer]. Costs depend on the type of trauma and the amount of hazardous material at the scene. Particularly large amount of hazardous waste may incur additional fees [source: Kramer].

In the end, most crime scenes cost between $1,000 and $5,000 to clean and decontaminate; a homicide in a single room with a lot of blood might run up to $3,000 [sources: Falcon, Inside Edition]. In rare cases of mass trauma or structural damage, costs can be in the tens of thousands [source: Whitmarsh]. This service is often covered under auto, homeowner's or business insurance. In the case of homicide, the company usually sends the bill to the federal Crime Victim Reparations agency, which provides financial assistance toward the price of remediation. In some communities, religious organizations help cover the cost.

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No matter who pays the bill, there is money to be made, and the CTS decon industry has seen enormous growth since its birth in the mid-'90s [source: Lane]. Between 2003 and 2012, even as U.S. crime rates dropped, the number of cleaning companies specializing in crime scenes nearly doubled, jumping from about 300 to about 550 [sources: Mahoney, Davidson]. There are even franchise opportunities [source: Modern Franchise].

Succeeding in this industry means understanding the sensitive nature of the work. Advertising and marketing can be tricky. Some companies choose the standard phone-book route or advertise on the side of their vans. Others focus on more discreet options, like passing out cards at service-industry functions (hotels and motels need clean-ups more often than any other types of business), funeral homes and police stations. Marketing a crime-scene clean-up business means getting to know police detectives, firefighters, paramedics and morticians, who will provide a list of cleaning services to survivors when it's requested [source: Sahadi].

Some people call this growing field a social trend toward the commercialization of death. Some call it simple capitalism. Others call it a godsend. Andrew Whitmarsh, for one, calls it rewarding:"Anyone in this business needs to focus on the positives. They are helping a family or individual through a very difficult time, [and that] will never be forgotten by the clients. They will always remember the team of individuals that were present in their time of need."

Author's Note: How Crime-scene Clean-up Works

This is my second go at How Crime-scene Clean-up Works. The first, I wrote in 2006, with hours and hours of research but without the benefit of an interview. This one, I was lucky enough to be handed an industry contact by my editor, and after communicating with Andrew Whitmarsh, the insight was invaluable. I asked him both business-related and personal questions, and his responses to the latter took me aback. You hear a lot out there these days about the "commercialization of death." And no doubt there are those working in the CTS decon business who see it as a money-making endeavor and nothing more; but any illusions I had of some industrywide callousness in the face of human tragedy were disabused. Mr. Whitmarsh related observations that were sensitive and certainly attached. It would be a mistake, then, to think the decision earn a living cleaning up after tragedy implies a callousness toward it, and many of the additions in this version are intended to reflect that.

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More Great Links

Sources

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