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Thursday, February 10, 2005
Crime-Scene Cleanup a Growing Industry
By Charlotte Balcomb Lane
Journal Staff Writer
On television, death and drugs can look almost glamorous. Television shows such as the "CSI" series depict clever forensic investigators combing for clues through bloody murder scenes without bodysuits, respirators or heavy gloves.
But the reality is very different.
Just ask the people who make a living cleaning up after the police and forensic investigators finish with a room where a violent murder or suicide has happened, a building that has been a meth lab or a drug house.
"It's pretty nasty work," said Loretta Blackard, owner of BELS Trauma Cleanup, one of several companies in Albuquerque that specialize in cleaning and decontaminating houses, hotel rooms, automobiles and apartments that have been the site of violence, of an unattended death, or of a drug lab.
"It's a very unique field," agreed Enrique Castañeda, owner of Above and Beyond, a family-owned janitorial company that branched into the growing field of crime-scene cleanup last spring.
The work often involves ripping up carpet, floors and tiles to get rid of every trace of blood and body fluids. It also involves disposing of furniture, mattresses and anything else contaminated.
Anything touched by blood has to be sealed in special containers and destroyed by a medical waste company.
"It's a hazardous job. It's not just a housekeeping job," said Castañeda, adding that blood could be contaminated with diseases such as HIV or hepatitis.
Workers wear bodysuits, heavy gloves to protect against sharp objects including needles, and usually respirators to protect themselves from horrifying odors.
"We call it the smell of death," said Castañeda.
The people who do the work receive hazard pay, which is often double the hourly rate for normal janitorial work.
"It's a special job for special people and they get special pay," explained Castañeda.
The cost of a cleanup can be substantial: $2,000 to $3,800, including the hourly rates for workers and disposal fees.
Occasionally, the expenses can be covered by homeowners or life insurance, especially if the place is a hotel or an apartment complex.
Rockefeller's Cleaning Co., an Albuquerque company that does both trauma and meth-lab cleanup, charges a $500 minimum. Cleaning and sanitizing a very gruesome site can cost up to $5,000, said Joe Goode, the manager of Rockefeller's Cleaning.
However, Albuquerque's rate of violent crime is still low enough that no local company survives solely on trauma cleanup. Most companies do general janitorial or fire and water restoration as well.
Blackard of BELS Trauma Cleanup does only crime-scene cleaning, but she has another job.
A new field
Until about 10 years ago, the task of cleaning up after a violent or unattended death was left to families, church volunteers or friends. But with the awareness of HIV and hepatitis, people began to worry about blood-borne pathogens and possible liability.
A lucrative industry has sprung from those fears, said Michael Tillman, owner of Amedecon, an Irving, Texas, company that teaches five-day certification courses on cleanup and decontamination. His company also sells franchises to operators around the country.
"If you don't know what you're doing, you're going to leave blood and bodily fluids behind," said Tillman.
"Cleanup doesn't put the emphasis on decontamination," he added.
Tillman's company is one of a handful nationwide that teach and certify technicians for this work. So far, there are no national or state requirements that trauma cleanup specialists be certified or have any special training other than following the federal OSHA safety rules.
However, a few businesses in Albuquerque have taken the extra step of having their employees trained and certified, including Above and Beyond, Rockefeller's Cleaning Co. and Advanced Environmental Solutions.
Castañeda, his wife, Alba Castañeda, and three employees of Above and Beyond attended a five-day seminar in Missouri.
A meth lab
Cleaning a methamphetamine lab is even more costly and more hazardous than cleaning a trauma site.
It's also a growth industry as the use of the drug proliferates nationally.
New Mexico doesn't mandate that a property used as a meth lab be cleaned by trained techs, but the city of Albuquerque does.
In Albuquerque, the property owner is required to pay for testing and cleaning, which can cost several thousand dollars.
A handful of companies is certified to do these tasks, including Rockefeller's Cleaning, Serve Pro and Advanced Environmental Solutions.
According to the Albuquerque Police Department, in 2004 there were 60 contaminated sites that required cleaning.
In the last three years, there have been 260.
Albuquerque Detective Leif Arvidson said those numbers will probably rise in the future with the implementation of the city's meth-lab hot-line telephone number and training for postal workers, meter readers and others to spot meth labs.
Sites must be tested by an approved industrial or environmental hygienist and cleaned by a separate company.
Initial testing costs between $800 and $1,300. Estimates for cleaning can run from $2,000 to $20,000, said Goode of Rockefeller's Cleaning.
After cleaning, a final test determines whether the property is "clean."
According to city ordinances, a clean property must test at less than 0.5 micrograms of contaminants per square foot.
Cleaning requires air scrubbers to remove residue from the air and washing and rinsing the walls and all surfaces several times.
Often the contents of the property, including furniture, drapes and carpeting, are pulled out and destroyed.
"It's more cost-effective to remove the stuff than to clean it," said Arvidson.
"This is dangerous stuff," he added.