Hazard Cleaning: What to Know About Cleaning Up After a Death When the SHTF

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By the author of Street Survivalism: A Practical Training Guide To Life In The City and The Ultimate Survival Gear Handbook

Recently, I came across an interesting article in a local outlet about hazard cleaning. As the name implies, it’s the cleanup and sanitization of hazardous environments such as accidents and spills, operation rooms, and some types of landfills, among other contaminated settings.

Many of these exist around us: I’ve been into abandoned warehouses and fabrics and circulated with law enforcement agents in drug hotspots, crime, accident, and suicide scenes, accumulator homes, and animal fighting rings right here in my town. Years ago, I entered a crackhouse with friends to rescue one from our group. 

It’s shocking what you can find in these places, however, it never occurred to me who is left to deal with the aftermath (or how) once the authorities are done ceasing or containing the activity and investigating the occurrence. No one in these situations ever mentioned about it, and I never asked – probably because I was overwhelmed or upset. Once you see some stuff up close takes a while to get accustomed, and we never really unsee it. 

Therefore, the article piqued my interest also for two other reasons. One, I immediately started imagining a variety of SHTF (and post-SHTF) scenarios in which it could become more than an ordinary necessity. Two, despite the obvious association, I have never seen an article about hazard cleaning in preppersphere. I’m not saying there isn’t, just that I haven’t found one until now.

Selco has explained how to handle dead bodies before, but today, let’s discuss how to clean up after somebody dies.

What happens after someone dies?

When researching the subject, I’ve found tons of legal advice on what to do, who, and which agencies to notify when someone dies. The US government has a page providing a list of agencies to tell when someone dies for legal and bureaucratic procedures. 

That’s very important: it can be an emotionally overwhelming situation, and from the point of view of preparedness, it’s indeed a good idea to think of that before a death occurs to plan and understand the steps of this challenging process. However, this is about other practical matters.

Hazard cleaning is necessary when someone dies inside a home or other private ground. 

To be clear, and for all purposes, I’m considering a scenario in which there’s a deep crisis, and things may not be running as normal as in good times, but there’s still the rule of law. If it’s a total SHTF like a war or what Selco went through, hazard cleaning (or any cleaning) may be something entirely different. 

Also, it’s essential to notice that initial procedures to care for the dead differ slightly from country to country, thanks to differences in legislation, culture, but also circumstances (how the person in question died). 

As a rule, if it was from natural causes or in the presence of the family, a funeral home will remove the body and take care of everything. If the family doesn’t have the means to pay for the service, local or state authorities may be called instead. 

If the person died alone or it’s suspected that a dead person inside a home was the victim of suspicious and/or violent causes, the police are called, the scene isolated and protected, and there may be an investigation. A coroner or medical examiner is brought in to identify the body and determine the causes and circumstances. 

In some cases, the authorities are also responsible for removing, transferring, storing the body, and contacting relatives or acquaintances. Whichever the case, from that point on, the responsibility for cleaning a loved one’s house after death falls on the family members, usually the next of kin. That’s when hazard cleaning companies enter the scene.

If the death was violent, a thorough cleanup might be necessary. 

In the article, a local professional cleaner tells stories and goes on to describe some established hazard cleaning standards and procedures, recalling some difficult or unusual situations she faced in her career. 

To start, there is no national certification or government regulation within the hazard or crime scene cleanup industry, which follows some established protocols and technical procedures common in industries and hospitals. The professionals possess the certifications offered by the company according to their program.

It’s sensitive work, so professionals also receive training to conduct themselves professionally in uncomfortable situations and be able to show the family compassion, understanding, and utmost respect to avoid further traumas.

Here are some facts about cleaning up after a death.

I also researched companies offering services and training in the US and Europe and interviewed a few professionals. Most attended courses in North American institutes, including the technician that contributed to the aforementioned article:

  • Blood, body parts, and fluids are hard to remove entirely and can carry pathogens. Professionals specializing in hazard cleaning aim to ensure a property is thoroughly cleaned, sanitized, and free of bacteria and potential pathogens. 
  • On average, a body begins decomposing in just two or three days. The process is slower in colder climates and faster in warmer and humid ones. 
  • Depending on the crime, body parts can be found in different rooms, which requires a very detailed investigation and cleaning to preserve others living in the space down the road.
  • Some people are found dead after days, weeks, or even months, which means even more pathogens may exist in the environment but also in adjacent rooms, possibly even in neighboring units (for instance in an apartment building).
  • Simple house cleaning – washing and scrubbing surfaces with water and common cleaning items – is ineffective and harmful. It spreads the fluids (blood, fat, and others) and pathogens and further traps contaminants to surfaces. These can remain hazardous for months or even years after the fact.
  • Likewise, residues must be carefully contained and discarded following strict guidelines, similar to what happens in hospitals. Professional items are used for that, too. Consider knowing and having some of these items as preparation.
  • The smell is strong and repulsive and can be even worse if the person is sick or taking some medications. The cleaner I interviewed explained that dead humans’ odor differs from dead animals, and people who have been sick or using certain medications can have stronger or distinct odors. She showed a special equipment commonly used that releases a gas which reacts with and “burn” the odor particles.
  • For various reasons, professionals never work alone; at least two are always present onsite. Sometimes, a guard or even the police is assigned to the premises until the service is completed for security.
  • Hazard cleaners follow strict biohazard and disposal guidelines to help protect themselves and others from pathogen exposure. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is mandatory and includes a double layer of gloves, biohazard suits, respiratory masks, eye protection and protective footwear. They are trained on types, the proper way to wear, how to clean, and care for PPE.
  • Disinfection is done with more potent, professional-grade products like those used in hospitals, though some professionals mentioned that regular, quality household products can be used in less severe cases. 
  • Biological indicators and reagents are used to detect and highlight hidden, trapped or stubborn fluids in more porous materials such as wood floors, fabrics, mattresses, furniture, and other surfaces. 
  • Blood and other residues may not get away no matter what, in which case items must be discarded (and incinerated) and surfaces replaced. Extra care and detail is dedicated to personal belongings and memorabilia.
  • Cleaning and sanitizing may not be enough, with some places requiring a thorough renovation (painting, resurfacing, and so on). That’s usually the case in severe accumulator places. I also saw that happen when a worker fell from an apartment balcony in the building where I lived with my parents in the 1990s. The area had to stay closed for almost two weeks.
  • Some professionals are called to remove and clean from dead animals too. Procedures are similar in most cases, particularly if there’s blood and parts.
  • Finally, price varies according to the extension, surfaces to be cleaned, disinfected, and deodorized, and how long the body has been on settings, among other factors. Some places can take up to ten or twelve hours to be cleaned. It can go from a few hundred up to thousands of dollars.

Is hazard cleaning something worth preparing for?

As usual, the answer is “it depends”. I wanted to bring awareness to the topic. As I mentioned in the beginning, this may be an issue in some scenarios, though I’ll be the first to admit it’s something very specific to invest in. Depending on where one lives or what one expects, it may be worth getting basic knowledge and a couple of items for basic hazard cleaning. For everyone else, just knowing it’s a thing and having a couple of useful phone numbers and websites stored may be enough. 

It’s important to understand the basics.

Back in the day, death was a natural matter, and families took care of things directly. They’d clean and prepare the dead person for the mourning and handle burial proceeds. Many had property grounds for members of the family. That’s still relatively common in rural settings and as well as some cultures. 

Modern society, in general, has a hard time dealing with death. Most people don’t want to think or talk about these things, much less discuss the practical details of post-mortem processes. It’s never easy, especially when it’s someone close, and can be even more traumatic if the case involves violence and blood. 

That’s why companies and professionals exist to provide hazard cleaning services, another convenience of modern society. If you didn’t know about it, now you do. I didn’t, and upon researching it, I thought that maybe if things hit the fan for real one day, many of us may have to contend with this grim reality, perhaps directly, and if that’s the case, I hope this helps.

Do you have any knowledge about this subject? Do you have anything to add? Do you have supplies put aside for this purpose? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

About Fabian

Fabian Ommar is a 50-year-old middle-class worker living in São Paulo, Brazil. Far from being the super-tactical or highly trained military survivor type, he is the average joe who since his youth has been involved with self-reliance and outdoor activities and the practical side of balancing life between a big city and rural/wilderness settings. Since the 2008 world economic crisis, he has been training and helping others in his area to become better prepared for the “constant, slow-burning SHTF” of living in a 3rd world country.

Fabian’s ebook, Street Survivalism: A Practical Training Guide To Life In The City , is a practical training method for common city dwellers based on the lifestyle of the homeless (real-life survivors) to be more psychologically, mentally, and physically prepared to deal with the harsh reality of the streets during normal or difficult times. He’s also the author of The Ultimate Survival Gear Handbook.

You can follow Fabian on Instagram @stoicsurvivor

Picture of Fabian Ommar

Fabian Ommar

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  • I worked for the coroner’s office, my job being strictly “removals”, and in that time I did learn a few things.

    In a nutshell… Keep your mind flexible to be prepared for anything. We were never told what we were walking into just that there was “a body”. It could be a car accident, a suicide, a drug overdose or natural causes. It could be violent, or the person could be laying there simply looking as though they were asleep. It could be a person of advanced age, a young person, or an infant or child. Keep your mind sharp and keep focussed on the task, rather than on the person that you are dealing with.

    Smells. Smells are going to be the bane of your existence. Flimsy masks will do nothing. As the author mentioned, people who have been sick or are taking certain medication can smell worse when they die, or as they decompose. A person who has been drinking alcohol will Al so will have a dreadful smell.

    Vicks VapoRub. Carried with you… Stuff your nose full of it and even take a dab in your mouth and hold it there if you find yourself in a situation with an intolerable smell.

    The other thing that you may run across is maggots. Disgusting little creatures. No secrets to preparing for those… Just some thing else to consider.

  • If you ever have one of those water / smoke remediation teams work on your house, ask them about crime scene cleanup….

  • Yeah, finding a body after a few days, not fun.
    The smell.
    Once you know it, you know it.
    A cheap way to keep at least some of the smell out, Vicks vapor rub under your nose.
    Post-SHTF, in some cases, after the body is removed, might be just better to rip out the carpet and or flooring than trying to clean it up.
    Depending on the severity and length of SHTF, there could be a number of bodies in various conditions of decomposition. If you are scavenging , your nose might tell you a body may be present before your eyes. Might be better to continue on scavenging and let them lie.

    • Yep I remember in my 20s I went into where the city burned the homeless people that the city found. That is a smell you never forget. It’s a very distinct smell.

  • Thank you for this article. I do believe it’s necessary to be aware of this even in a non-shtf situation.
    Risking over sharing here, my veteran husband committed suicide in our living room four years ago. The police and coroner removed his body at my request before myself and my young daughter returned to the home. Family removed the ruined furniture to spare us as much of the gory mess as possible.
    My aged mother and I scrubbed the carpet and steps for hours with peroxide to remove as much as possible before I would bring my daughter in the house. We had no where else to be. Thankfully there wasn’t smell issues after the furniture removal and cleaning we did. The carpet was replaced the next week.
    It’s important to be aware of the possibility of having to deal with something like this in daily life as well as SHTF. Thank you for bringing awareness to this aspect of SHTF

    • I’m so sorry you went through that. I had a relative do the same thing, my Dad had to just rip out the carpet afterward and take it straight to the dump. There was no cleaning that mess.

  • Be aware that liquids, whether those that are needing to be cleaned up or those being used to clean up, can be difficult to capture for disposal. If there are plenty of absorbent rags they can be used. However, they are often in short supply and may need to be used for other purposes.

    Wet/dry vacuums can help, if you have one and the power to operate it. The use of one may result in an even harder to clean tool than it is worth.

    I recommend stocking up on a variety of types and sizes of sponges. Do not plan on reusing them, even after cleaning them and sanitizing them. What makes them work well for picking up and transferring liquids means they are going to hold some of those liquids even if they are put through some type of cleaning process after they are used. They are cheap enough to stock up large numbers and dispose of the used ones with the other materials after the job is done.

    Remember that liquids run downhill. At least usually. And there always seems to be a nook, cranny, crevice, crack, wall, piece of furniture, and several other places where liquids will reach and become almost impossible to recover without major effort.

    Be ready for that fact and make the effort. Anything that needs to be removed needs to be removed, even if difficult. Long, skinny, highly absorbent materials need to be used to get into, as far as possible, any locations that are not out in the open. Pelletized or powdered absorbents can be used to soak up the liquids and the (more) solid materials can be cleaned up after the absorbent has had time to work.

    It is amazing just how rough some surfaces are that do not appear to be so. Stock up on very stiff bristle brushes that can be used to scrub floors and other surfaces that are likely to retain the contaminates you are trying to get rid of. Go over the surfaces with one more (or more) flushes with whatever you are using as the final rinse. Some surfaces can get even more scratches when scrubbed so you do not want to actually create more places for things to hide while cleaning others.

    Short handled brushes for some places and long, and very long, handled brushes as well. Soft bristle brushes may be needed to sweep up dry powders, but try to avoid using them on wet surfaces.

    Chances are you will need to be down on hands and knees. Even if you do not need to in order to clean (it can put you awful close to the contamination) but you may need to look in or under things, just to check.

    In addition to the various trash bags mentioned, especially the heavy-duty contractor clean-up bags, have plenty of buckets with lids that seal well. Plastic is usually best as most metal buckets can be damaged by the products that will need cleaning up. However, having a few metal ones can be important because there are things that will break down plastic buckets. Again, everything needs to be able to be sealed well and handled without falling apart.

    Using headlights when doing the clean-up is better than trying to do it with handheld flashlights. Easy to clean area flood lights can be a help, too. Using open flame lighting can be a real danger if any of the cleaning products or items being cleaned up are the least bit explosive. Or, in some cases, burnable.

    Hopefully there will be a good place for the final disposal of the collected materials that are to be discarded. If not, try to arrange to burn everything, at a high temperature. A curtain wall burner works well for this.

    For mild contamination, with mild contaminates, carpets can be steam cleaned a couple of times and then be allowed to be used. With anything serious, it is better to suit up in really good PPE and pull up the carpet for disposal.

    If you might have to clean a vehicle that has any kind of contamination, or suspected contamination, study up now on how to detail a vehicle. Your average Sunday afternoon car washing efforts on your lawn will not cut it. You have to go much deeper. A set of automotive fastener tools so you can take off trim panels and the like will be almost mandatory to avoid damaging the panels to the point where they cannot be re-installed.

    One of the most important things if you are tasked with cleaning up any type of hazardous materials, human or animal remains, or certain plant products, is to take care of yourself first. Quality, well fitted PPE, with extra respirator cartridges. And a full-face respirator is almost always better than half-face respirators and especially common face masks or surgical masks.

    Double clove with a tight-fitting inner glove and a tough outer glove, preferably of nitrile or one specific to the material being cleaned in some cases. If there is a risk of cutting or tearing the polymer gloves wear tough leather gloves as an additional outer layer. These will need to be discarded after the cleanup so a balance between effectiveness and cost will need to be made. Go more for effective.

    Another reason to use a full-face respirator is that it protects the eyes much better than a mask plus goggles can. If they are all you have, try to add a face shield as well to keep everything off the skin of your face if at all possible.

    Rubber boots taped to the cleaning suit being used, usually a Tyvek type hooded and booted coverall.

    Research and study the subject of cleaning dangerous, hazardous, and difficult places and materials if you are expected to have to do it yourself.

    And a couple of notes about dealing with human remains. Document everything. Keep everything with the body together and identified to the body from which it came. It might be a PAW (Post Apocalyptic World) situation, but if someone shows up to claim something of value that their relative was known to have, it is better to have it ready to hand over, along with the detailed location of where the person is buried. Or otherwise interred.

    There are many more things to consider, but this what I can think of at the moment.

    Just my opinion.

    Jerry D Young
    Hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and always remember TANSTAAFL
    (“There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch” Manny, from The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress by Robert A Heinlein)

  • I have a lot of faith in top quality enzyme cleaners – and also enzyme compost boosters. Bleach stinks and it has to be fresh or it doesn’t work (can’t buy powdered in Australia as far as I know). Disinfectants are fine but a good enzyme cleaner kills bacteria just as well. If I bought a large quantity of quick lime I’d have the police knocking on my door!

  • something to keep in mind with death during SHTFs – particularly serious SHTF could have a pandemic aspect to it – an initiator disease to the SHTF or subsequent diseases tangent to the loss of sanitation and communal living ….

    your BOL could have regular perimeter encounters with sick and dying refugees – and find corpses that need to be disposed of >>> I’d research rope loop poles and limit any contact to as much distance as possible – cremate & sanitize vehicle contained corpses – fill pump up tank sprayers with a sanitizing & insecticide solution for the corpse and immediate area …..

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