Sunday, July 14, 2002

Mopping blood for profit

Cleaning after traumatic deaths a niche business

By Austin Ramzy
The Des Moines Register

        DES MOINES, Iowa — A few times a year, often on holidays, Jeff Cross does something many people would rather not consider. He cleans up after traumatic deaths, often murders and suicides.

        The work isn't pleasant — ripping up blood-soaked carpet, gathering bits of bone — but victim advocates say the service is crucial for families of the dead.

        “It's extremely important,” said Sharon Thomas, manager of Polk County Victim Services.

        “It's hard enough when someone dies of natural causes. When it's a homicide, it's just one more layer of pain the family goes through if they have to clean it up.”

        Mr. Cross, who runs Cross Carpet Cleaning in Urbandale, Iowa, was first called to clean after a shooting death six years ago. He has lost track of how many trauma scenes he's been to since then.

        Some scenes, though, are difficult to forget. Mr. Cross cleaned after a 1999 murder-suicide that left three people dead in a west Des Moines house.

        “That one sticks in my mind,” he said. “I clean for people who live on the street, and every time I drive by I think about it.”

        Although death is as old as humanity, cleaning up after the dead is a relatively new business. In the last decade the number of companies doing the work has grown, spawning a trade association and a name: bio-recovery.

        In the United States, about 200 companies clean up after deaths, said Kent Berg, president of the American Bio-Recovery Association.

        There are also many companies that do the work in addition to regular janitorial or carpet- cleaning services.

        The financial responsibility for cleanups falls on property owners, although insurance often covers the costs. Cleaning up a death scene can cost as much as $5,000.

        Cleaning after shootings can be especially difficult, requiring the removal of carpet, bedding, curtains and walls.

        Disposal of blood-soaked material and other unsafe residue demands special attention — with a higher price tag. Workers' armor consists of a Tyvek suit, mask, goggles, gloves, boots and ventilators.

        Under federal law, workers who might be exposed to blood spills must receive blood-borne pathogen training, wear protective equipment and be offered Hepatitis B vaccinations.

        While more people are getting into the business because they see opportunity in the high rates charged, Mr. Berg said there's a high failure rate. Newcomers fail to realize that the business is as dependent on volume as any other industry, he said.


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