Let’s say you die in some spectacular way … and then nobody finds your body for a couple of weeks. Who the hell cleans up the gunk that used to be you? The cops aren’t paid to mop up brains, and grieving families aren’t generally equipped to scrub their loved ones out of the carpet. We talked to some biohazard cleaning technicians — folks who handle messes too dangerous or terrifying for mortal maids. Here’s what they told us:
What Counts As Medical Waste Is Surprisingly Arbitrary
Crime scene cleaners don’t just pull teeth out of walls for a living. Dale Cillian is a biohazard cleaning technician whose duties include “Responding to crime scenes, deaths, accidents, hoarding and extreme cleanup situations.” Similarly, Jayce LeBlanc’s list of assignments is much broader than what you’ll see in a typical CSI episode.
“Our company provided a service, free of charge, for any police station that contacted us. Our job was to sanitize any holding cell or squad car that they may have had someone bleed or vomit in. Some of the other jobs we did were cleaning up ‘hobo camps’ and cleaning up the houses or apartments of hoarders, usually at the request of the family or landlord, and occasionally the county. We also cleaned up after some highly contagious diseases, mostly bloodborne pathogens. Really, any job that was a potential biohazard. A few jobs have been high-profile. It was a new and strange experience to see jobs I was working on in the news.”
BananaStock/BananaStock/Getty Images“If you saw that room five hours ago, you’d know better than to stand in that spot.”
Apparently, you need a certain stoic sensibility to do these jobs. We’re sure that Magic Marker-ing up Ebola was indeed “a new experience” — though we’d use a few more adjectives to describe it. Likely some profanity, too.
Another possible assignment is medical pickup, in which technicians will retrieve used materials from a hospital or doctor’s office and transport it to a lab for autoclaving. Dale explains:
“There are two different kinds of medical waste disposal. There’s autoclave and there’s incineration. Incinerated waste is generated in a medical facility. When I pick up syringes from a doctor’s office, that’s for autoclave, which means they’ll high-pressure steam it. Syringes may contain diseases like human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), hepatitis B virus (HBV), and hepatitis C virus (HCV). A tissue sample, a speck on a glass slide you can barely see that’s 20 years old, would have to be incinerated. That’s medical waste. But a motorcycle accident doesn’t count as medical waste. I can pick up a victim’s brains, and that’s not considered medical waste because it’s not generated in a medical facility.
Jamiga/iStock/Getty ImagesHint hint, “It’s too hot for a helmet” guy.
Exam gloves contaminated with bodily fluids are considered medical waste. You need a permit specifically for medical waste, but you can clean up a crime scene without one. A mattress with a decomposed body on it for two weeks is not medical waste; anyone can clean that without a permit in Arizona.”
Did you hear that, readers? No permits! You can start today! You Can’t Fully Prepare For This Job.
Whoa, there. Hold on. Maybe you could start today, but as enticing as cleaning up former people might sound, perhaps you should reconsider. Dale frequently receives calls from people interested in busting into the lucrative cleanup business. Problem is, they have no idea of what they are getting themselves into.
“Online training is a joke. It might work for re-certification, but not to get you prepared for anything. Unless you get a face-to-face class, I think you’re asking for trouble. I had a girl who trained online, who really looked into it and really thought she wanted to do it. She went on a motorcycle call, and she didn’t see the body, most of it was cleaned up, but she was done. A lot of people call wanting to get in the business. No offense to women — they can do a lot of what we can do and most really pull their weight — but it gets difficult when you have to move a king-sized mattress soaked with fluids from a third-floor apartment down to ground level with no elevator.”
robroxton/iStock/Getty Images“I’m just gonna push this out the window. Remember to catch with your legs, not your back.”
Jayce described his first assignment, a bloody bathtub suicide:
“Walking into a bathroom and being able to see exactly what happened. Seeing the bloody outline of the razor used … the bathtub filled with blood and splashes of blood on the floor leading from the sink to the tub. You see this stuff on TV, but it doesn’t feel real until you walk into the room and experience it for yourself. We had training and they had set up fake scenes for us to practice our cleaning techniques. But I don’t think anything can fully prepare you for the real thing. Often in crime investigation shows, they will set up a scene and do a walk-through, but never show all the work it takes to actually make a home or hotel room inhabitable again.”
flowersandclassicalmusic/iStock/Getty ImagesSpoiler: It takes more than some Lysol and a Glade candle.
It turns out that this work includes a lot of demolition. There’s no getting back your deposit if you host a horror movie finale in your living room. That place needs to be torn down to the studs, not merely scrubbed out:
“We were required to remove every trace of biohazard. If there was a lot of splatter, we had to get all of it. If it soaked in or dripped down to another floor, we had to cut out the floor and remove the ceiling on the lower floor to be sure we removed every drop.”
saknakorn/iStock/Getty ImagesWhich is especially fun when you get to confirm to the downstairs neighbors that yes, that growing ceiling stain is exactly what they’re worried it is.
Cleanup is further complicated by the fact that decomposed human beings are basically“grease and liquefied fat.” If they saturate a porous surface, that surface has to be removed: “… if they coat even nonporous surfaces, it’s almost impossible to completely remove the odor.”Most “contaminated” materials are destroyed or thrown out. Even money “is taken to a bank where it will be exchanged and then destroyed by the Fed.”
Well, in theory, anyway …
Despite the fact that the federal government will destroy contaminated cash, strangely, not everybody is entirely scrupulous when it comes to burning valuables simply because they’ve got a little human juice on them. Dale says:
“Less-than-honest companies will steal things, like an iTunes card or furniture. They will tell people those items need to be thrown away, and then clean it off and sell it at yard sales or use the iTunes serial number for themselves. People are just cleaning off money and robbing families.”
Goran Milic/iStock/Getty ImagesWhen you start literally laundering money, you need to rethink your life choices.
“I know of many company owners who pad their experience. The company may be in business one year, but go to their website and they say they have been in business 15 years. They hire workers with extensive criminal records, and one owner has three felony convictions for identity theft and credit card fraud. These are the people freely walking around your house.”
Comstock Images/Stockbyte/Getty ImagesWhen there’s still blood drying, not a lot of people are willing to get on Yelp and shop around.
Jayce’s employers had a habit of charging insanely high prices for the work they were doing. In a way, that seems reasonable — whatever you want to charge us for not touching the plague is fine in our book. But in the end, the company’s practices would end up hurting people who were already reeling with emotional trauma.
“The reason I had such a big problem with the rates that they charged was because if the homeowner’s insurance was paying for our service, our price would more than double, and the customer was still held responsible even if the insurance company didn’t cover the whole cost.”
c-George/iStock/Getty Images“So is that cash, credit, or do you want to sign over their life insurance policy?”
Jayce’s company would easily charge $10,000-$20,000 per case.
“While I agree that the service I was providing was one that is incredibly important. I found that the practices of my company and the way they charged were just a bit callous, at best.”
Yeah, actually, we just discovered how much it would cost to get us to scrub up deadly diseases ourselves. It is slightly less than 20 grand.
Suicides Are Expensive, And Happen A Lot
For Jayce, the vast majority of the assignments he received were due to suicide.
“Suicides were the most common death that I cleaned up while on the job. I couldn’t give you an accurate percentage based on hard evidence, but I could give you a rough estimate that about 80 percent of the jobs that I worked were suicides.”
That’s probably not the cheeriest factoid you’ve learned today. Dale, ever the spirit-booster, elaborates: “I would say gunshot suicides are the most common.” In fact, the vast majority of gun-related deaths in the U.S. (64 percent) are suicides, not murders or accidents.
Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty ImagesAnd continuing the horrific cycle, whoever first finds your body is now at higher risk themselves.
Jayce has found shotguns to be the worst:
“The most expensive jobs that I worked on were either shotgun suicides or anything that had long enough time to decompose into its surroundings. The third job I was assigned was one of the worst — even to the two-year veteran I was with. It was a husband and father of three small children who shot himself with a shotgun in a concrete walled pit in the ground. His body was in that pit for almost three weeks before we arrived. It took us almost 12 hours to completely remove any trace of human remains from that pit. We worked through the night, as we often did. In this case, it was to ensure the children of the deceased didn’t see us there that day.”
ratsadapong/iStock/Getty ImagesYou know it’s been an awful day at work when “children didn’t see father’s corpse” was the high point.
Here’s Dale again, to make a disturbing story worse:
“Every situation is unique. A decomposed body near a wall or on a second floor could be quite intensive for remediation. The fluids could seep into the structure, which would require complete removal of building materials. A high-powered rifle or shotgun suicide could also require extensive renovation. Due to the explosion and spread of body fluids and tissue, the contamination could be extensive and time-consuming to remediate.”
So suicide is clearly not the answer. Even if you truly believe you have nothing to live for, at least consider your neighbors’ drywall.
With rabid pests, dirty needles, and blood contaminated with who knows what, being a biohazard technician is incredibly dangerous. According to Dale:
“Sometimes, you go into an area that has no electricity, water, air conditioning, or lighting. There’s broken glass and splintered wood, and hoarding conditions, and angry families. Once, the police told us, ‘You better have a gun in here.’ Someone was driving around the street shooting a gun.”
joebelanger/iStock/Getty ImagesLunch break game: “Car Backfire or Future Job?”
Jayce and his crew have been forced into some pretty risky situations in the past as well:
“I was in a situation once where my crew and I had just finished working a 12-hour job, followed by four hours of sleep, right into another 16-hour job. As we were leaving the area and headed home, we got another call sending us to a house where a man infected with MRSA had just died. Despite my protests that it was unsafe for my crew to work a job while sleep-deprived, much less a job that we knew for a fact contained a contagious disease, they pushed us until we gave in and worked that job. Luckily, we did it without any slip-ups or being infected.”
gdas/iStock/Getty ImagesNothing wakes you up like some strong coffee and the constant threat of deadly, deadly bacteria.
Especially hazardous are all the needles and syringes technicians often find lying around. Dale warns of the consequences of not catching a needle before it catches you.
“Due to confidentiality, I can’t give you specific details in regards to deaths. I can tell you a bio company owner here in Arizona told me he had cut himself on a crime scene cleanup and was very sick. He passed a few years later. This was more than 20 years ago. Two friends who lived on the East Coast both died from illnesses related to the industry. I can’t say more than that. I personally have been stuck by a needle and had to go through one year of blood testing. When I get my yearly physical, I always get checked for HIV, Hepatitis, and syphilis — the three major risks that are checked when one gets exposed.”
You’ve heard the phrase “It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s gotta do it”? Well, this is the dirtiest job, and these folks are the somebodies. Spare a moment of quiet gratitude that it’s not you. Of course, if it all didn’t sound that bad to you, you can always 1) see a psychiatrist and then 2) pick up a sponge.