The Biohazard Cleanup Guide – How To Identify And Deal With Biohazards

biohazard cleanup hazmat suit

Few words make people as nervous as “biohazard.” It conjures images of hazmat suits, hazard tape, condemned property and massive expense. But what are biohazards, and how should you respond if you need to deal with a biohazard cleanup? At Pro Housekeepers, we know a thing or two about difficult cleanups, and we’re here to demystify the biohazard cleaning process.

What are biohazards?

Simply put, a biological hazard, or biohazard, is any biological material that poses a risk to human or animal health. Blood is the most common biohazard we come into regular contact with, but other biohazards include mold and fungus spores, human waste, animal infestations, and industrial chemicals. Some are rare to find in typical home or workplace environments, but others are surprisingly common. It only takes a small leak or condensation buildup to provide the perfect environment for Stachybotrys chartarum — black mold — to thrive in residential homes, where it has been linked to bleeding lungs in infants.

Most biohazards are caused by microorganisms (such as bacteria and fungi), viruses, or toxins. Biohazards are classified according to type and effect and given United Nations numbers, which are reserved for all hazardous materials, including non-biohazards such as explosives and oxidizers. The categories of different biohazards include infectious substances harmful to humans, infectious substances harmful to animals, unidentified biological substances, and regulated medical waste.

The CDC further classifies biohazards according to the extent of harm they cause:

Level 1 — pose minimal threat to humans (E. coli)

Level 2 — cause moderate harm to humans (HIV)

Level 3 — high-risk pathogens that can become airborne (tuberculosis)

Level 4 — life-threatening pathogens with no known treatment (ebola)

TYPES OF BIOHAZARD
Human bodily fluidsIncluding blood, saliva, amniotic fluid, and more — bodily fluids can transmit diseases
Medical wasteThis includes tissue samples, laboratory cultures, and byproducts from autopsies and surgeries
Animal carcasses and droppingsDroppings may contain bacteria and viruses that become airborne, and carcasses attract disease-carrying pests such as flies and rodents
Mold and fungiSpores can become airborne and cause respiratory, neurological, and other illnesses
Viruses and bacteriaSome viruses and bacteria can survive outside of hosts and pose a threat to anyone entering the environment

Where might exposure to biohazards occur?

While most people think of biohazards as something rare, the fact is they can occur commonly in residential and industrial buildings. In homes, a simple leak can result in the growth of black mold, or a rodent infestation can leave behind droppings that contain pathogens which may become airborne. Hotel and nightlife premises may discover bodily fluids and sharps waste such as used needles. Assisted living facilities can suffer viral outbreaks and require professional cleaning. Crime scenes, traumatic or industrial accidents, medical incidents and more can all leave a property owner or manager with a biohazard cleanup on their hands.

biohazard waste removal

Types of biohazard cleanup

How extensive a biohazard cleaning needs to be depends on the underlying hazardous material and the harm it poses. Some, such as mold, are difficult to completely eradicate without professional help. If any spores are missed, the infestation could quickly return and continue causing problems. Other biohazards, such as used needles, are easier to dispose of as there are established community protocols for handling those items.

Unattended death cleanups and the aftermath of hoarding are other common biohazard situations where it’s best to call in the experts. Trained professionals understand how to identify and treat biohazards, use universal precautions, and can safely dispose of any hazardous waste in accordance with state and local regulations. In most instances, property owners cannot simply throw out potential biohazards in the trash, and doing so could result in legal penalties.

Professional biohazard cleaning companies will also bring the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) to prevent their staff from being exposed to pathogens while cleaning, and will test the property (if necessary) after cleaning to ensure all traces of the biohazard have been removed.

If you are unfortunate enough to be left with a crime scene or trauma cleanup at your property, the responding authorities will likely recommend a specialist crime scene cleanup business that routinely deals with the aftermath of homicides, suicides, accidents, and other traumas. These cleaning and restoration technicians have the equipment and training to handle any biohazards that are present, from enzyme solutions to break down bodily fluids and matter, to hydroxyl generators that sanitize and deodorize properties using UV light. 

Although crime scene cleaning grabs the headlines (and morbid curiosity has driven most of us to look at crime scene photos from time to time!), it’s not the most common kind of biohazard cleanup, accounting for about a third of all cleanups that professional companies undertake. Unattended death cleanups — where a body has not been discovered for several days or more — are more usual than homicides, and cleaning and sanitizing in the aftermath of disease outbreaks also form a large part of the routine work carried out by hazmat cleaners. If a nursing home or assisted living facility has an outbreak of MRSA, for example, it’s important to carry out a biohazard cleaning to protect the residents.

Common biohazard cleanups situations

  • Human deaths, including homicide, suicide, and unattended death (blood and bodily fluid cleanup)
  • Hoarding
  • Animal infestation (rodent feces, dead carcasses)
  • Localized disease outbreaks (C. diff., MRSA)
  • Criminal activity/crime scene cleanup (meth labs, tear gas residue)
  • Mold or fungus infestations
  • Industrial and workplace accidents (chemical spills)
  • Odor removal
  • Vehicle cleaning and decontamination
  • Sewage and black water cleanup

How a biohazard cleanup works

Cleaning a biohazard is far more intensive than a regular cleaning — even a whole property deep clean! When carrying out a routine cleaning, the occasional missed spot isn’t the end of the word. In fact, many people commonly overlook all kinds of places when they’re cleaning, such as switch plates, door handles, and ceiling fans. However when it comes to cleaning biohazards, absolutely nothing can be overlooked or missed. When the risks come from microbes invisible to the naked eye, removing them requires a special kind of know-how.

The first consideration is PPE. Hazmat cleanup requires suits that are liquid and airtight, as well as gloves, latex booties, respirators, eye goggles, face shields, and more. With so much restrictive clothing, working as a biohazard cleaner is a physically demanding job that requires meticulous attention to detail. The smallest slip up could result in the cleaning technician themselves being exposed to the biohazard they’re trying to remove.

If a forensic cleaning is particularly extensive, a control room might be set up. This is a clean environment through which technicians can enter and exit the scene without spreading contaminants any further. This is particularly important in cases of multi-pathogen scenes, or when dealing with airborne pathogens that are especially harmful to humans.

Once suitably protected from any hazardous material, cleaners need to locate every last trace of the biohazard. A stained carpet could indicate a much larger pool of hazardous material beneath. Fluids can drip through several floors of a property, and AC units can quickly disperse airborne particles throughout an entire building. Biohazard cleaning begins at the cause of the hazard, but usually involves searching and cleaning the entire property.

hazardous waste removal

Biohazard cleaning process

Step 1: Wear appropriate PPE, including liquid/airtight clothing, goggles, respirator, gloves

Step 2: Create a clean space or control room to manage entry/exit from contaminated area

Step 3: Identify primary biohazards and area of contamination

Step 4: Remove any unsalvageable items and clean visible damage

Step 5: Continue to clean under and around damaged area, stripping back each layer of floor or wall and testing beneath

Step 6: Use UV light sources such as hydroxyl generators to sanitize and deodorize air

Step 7: Dispose of all biohazard material according to state and local regulations 

Because of this, the biohazard cleanup process can be unavoidably destructive. While enzyme cleaners that react with bodily fluids or other contaminants can be used to identify areas that need to be cleaned, often a full inspection requires the removal of drywall and floorboards to check places that can’t be checked visually.

In addition to being a difficult and labor-intensive task, cleaning crime or death scenes comes with the added consideration of the human element of the people who live in or own the property. A trauma cleaner may find they need as many people skills as cleaning skills in order to handle the sensitive nature of their job. As such, the professional and job requirements for biohazard company cleaning staff are multifaceted: cleaners need to be trained in recognizing and decontaminating hazards, compassionate with property owners, and physically fit enough to put in many hours of manual work while wearing hot and restrictive clothing.

Carrying out this kind of intensive, full-property cleaning is difficult under ideal circumstances, but most hazmat cleaning is undertaken in everyday environments that were not designed to facilitate sterile cleaning. That might mean working in small or cramped quarters, navigating additional cut or trip risks such as broken glass and clutter, and having a variety of different surfaces and materials to clean.

While there is no specific governing body for biohazard cleaning, forensic cleaning companies follow state and national regulations for cleaning and disposing of each individual biohazard they encounter using guidelines from OSHA, EPA, CDC, and more. Some regulations include the Blood or Other Potentially Infectious Materials (BOPIM) Standard issued by OSHA, which regulates how biohazards are handled in the workplace, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Laws and Regulations that are enforced by the EPA.

crime scene, trauma, death cleanup

The crime scene cleaning industry

Although it sounds incredibly niche, the industry of crime scene cleaners has thrived and is one of the last strongholds of small, independent companies, with just a handful of national players. Biohazard cleaning services command a premium price, and a significant portion of business owners are ex-law enforcement or military. Who cleans up crime scenes therefore varies from national chains to small dedicated business, without centralized coordination between jurisdictions.

Not all crime scene cleanup jobs are homicide-related. Cleaning the toxic remains of meth labs, or even of tear gas — which is frequently used by police during raids — are more everyday challenges faced by forensic cleaners. Most find work through referrals from law enforcement agencies and coroners’ offices, and many property owners and managers rely on recommendations for reputable biohazard cleaning companies when they find themselves in need of such a service.

The cost of biohazard cleaning

Unfortunately, the cost of a crime scene cleanup can be high — at least several thousand dollars, depending on the type of biohazard and the amount of time it takes to clean. Nationally, the average cost of a biohazard cleanup is about $3000-$5000, but can be as high as $25,000 or even more, depending on the type of hazard and extent of cleanup necessary. Business or homeowners’ insurance and victims’ compensation funds can cover some or most of the cost, but part of the financial burden will fall upon the property owner to cover.

There are several reasons why biohazard cleaning costs significantly more than a traditional deep clean, from extensive PPE requirements to the high price of disposal, as well as the heightened risk to the health and safety of the cleaning staff, all contribute to the increased cost.

hazardous waste disposal cost

Why is biohazard cleaning so expensive?

  • Single-use PPE equipment, including suits, boots, gloves, goggles, and respirators
  • Specialized cleanup solutions such as blood indicators and enzyme-based cleaners
  • Insurance and liability overheads for handling biohazardous materials
  • Filing all appropriate documents and paperwork with state and local authorities
  • Cost for disposal and certification of hazardous waste
  • Testing (where appropriate) to ensure all biohazard traces have been removed
  • Highly trained workforce that recognize biohazards and know how to handle them
  • Increased personal risk to cleaners associated with handling biohazards

Cleaning expenses are often only the start of the true cost of biohazard remediation. Frequently, walls and floors are damaged as cleaners check that all traces of contaminant have been removed, and carpets and soft furnishings are destroyed by the smells that accompany common biohazards. Restoring a home or business property back to its original state after an unattended death or mold infestation can be costly and time consuming. Even hoarding cleanups, which are typically among the most common jobs undertaken by forensic cleaners, can cause additional damage to properties that are already in poor condition.

Can you DIY clean biohazards?

Many property owners are tempted to try cleaning biohazards on their own in order to avoid the large accompanying expense, but we really cannot recommend a DIY approach to this cleaning task. Biohazards are nationally and internationally designated and monitored because they pose a risk to human health, and improper cleaning could put anyone who enters the premises in danger of sickness, and even death.

Specialized cleaning companies have access to the right cleaning solutions to neutralize biohazards and eliminate risk. While vinegar might be great for cleaning your drains or making your kitchen surfaces sparkle, it isn’t very effective on human remains or chemical spills. Forensic cleaners know the right solution to use on each particular biohazard, how to apply it, and how to ensure effectiveness. Many people fail to use household cleaners properly, meaning they think surfaces are sanitized when they are not. With biohazards, that’s a chance property owners can’t afford to take.

Disposing of biohazards is also a minefield for people who aren’t familiar with local and national rules and regulations. Most hazardous material cannot be thrown out with the trash, but needs to go to a specialist facility to be incinerated. You must also use appropriate warning labels and red trash bags to warn anyone who might handle the material that it contains biohazards. Failure to identify biohazards in general waste can be a criminal matter in some jurisdictions, so it’s always a good idea to bring in expert cleaners, who know how and where to properly dispose of biohazards in order to protect yourself and your property from legal repercussions.

The final word

Nobody wants to have a biohazard cleaning situation on their hands, but if that day comes, it’s always better to let the experts take control. Professional forensic cleaning services know how to handle biohazards to ensure the property is thoroughly cleaned and all dangerous materials have been removed and are properly disposed of in a licenced facility.

While we often think of homicides and other gruesome scenes when considering biohazards, there are many other potentially hazardous materials to be found in homes and workplaces. One way to avoid becoming exposed to biohazards is to stay on top of routine cleaning and maintenance. Check regularly for leaks or condensation, and treat any animal infestations as early as possible to prevent a situation from getting out of control.

Undertaking a deep clean once or twice a year will help uncover potential problems areas before they need professional intervention. If it’s time to deep clean your home or business premises, give the friendly experts at Pro Housekeepers a call and let us take care of all your cleaning needs today.

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