Unattended Death Biohazard Problems and Considerations
If somebody dies at home unexpectedly and they’re alone, it is called an unattended death. Typically, the body isn’t found for days, weeks, or months. At the end of the significant emotional toll left by an unattended death on the departed’s loved one, there’s the crushing reality that life still has to move on.
Common causes of unattended deaths include old age, suicide, and homicide. The cause of death can determine what the scene will look like and how a biohazard expert would clean it. For example, the more traumatic the death, more bodily fluid may be present at the crime scene. This part of the guide will discuss the different biohazard problems when cleaning up an unattended death.
The Decomposition Process
Decomposition is defined as reducing the body of former living matter into simpler forms of matter. Decomposition begins when a person dies with internal organs decomposing 24-78 hours after death. If a body is not embalmed shortly after that, significant health hazards can present themselves in the following days.
The decomposition speed depends on the cause of death, their weight, and the environment. In most cases of an unattended death, the deceased is inside a home, shielded from the outside elements. However, indoors may not be enough to stall the decomposition process in warmer climates.
There are three main stages of decomposition:
- Autolysis: Autolysis or self-digestion happens because of a lack of oxygen and excess carbon dioxide. This causes the cells to become stressed and the intracellular pH levels to drop. Low pH means an acidic environment, which causes the cell membranes to rupture and release enzymes that digest the cell from the inside out.
- Bloat: 3-5 days after death, the body starts to bloat, and blood-containing foam leaks from the mouth and nose. In this stage, the body leaks smelly odors called “putrefaction”. People can now smell the deceased even if they’re not visible.
- Active Decay: During the third stage of decomposition, the fat and muscles have reduced to liquid and the skin has started to blacken. Bacteria, fungi, and protozoa attack the dead tissue. The development of maggots and insects increases as they remove the remaining soft tissue.
The fourth stage of decomposition is skeletonization, which leaves behind nothing but a skeleton. Decomposition is a natural process, but cleaning up the area where a body is decomposing is not easy.
We’ll now discuss the many health risks when a body decomposes.
Blood borne Pathogens & Diseases
The first risk you need to look out for in the decomposition process is bodily fluid spillage carrying blood borne pathogens and diseases. Regardless of if you knew the deceased well, they may be unknowingly infected. For this reason, it’s important to treat every scene as a potential biohazard.
HIV, Hepatitis B and C, and MRSA are the most significant hazards. These pathogens can survive in the bodily fluids days after the person has died and can stay in carpets, bedding, and other surfaces long after the body have been removed.
Because of the danger, OHSA and the EPA have specific regulations for people who may interact with blood borne pathogens in the workplace. Biohazard companies have exposure plans that protect their employees and anyone who may visit the hazardous area. Other potentially dangerous fluids include semen, vaginal secretions, cerebrospinal fluid, and decomposed fat and tissue.
During the 2nd stage of human decomposition, called bloat, processes in the body begin to attract flies, maggots, and other tissue-eating insects, which begin to lay eggs. This stage begins no more than 72 hours after death under normal circumstances. Carrion flies locate dead bodies even from the most minute traces of odor.
This can lead to a fly and maggot infestation in the household. Worse, these ugly creatures can remain after the removal of the body. Percutaneous injury and mucous membrane splashes are risks that medical professionals know when assessing a dead body.
Many odors permeate when we encounter unattended deaths. Obviously, the body will emit odors, but we’ll also discover odors from animals, food, and waste. It’s also not uncommon for hoarders to be isolated from outside interaction, meaning their deaths, unfortunately, go unnoticed. Odors can migrate through the flooring, sub-flooring, and even into the ductwork meaning the point of origin isn’t the only location that needs to be cleaned.
While odors are unpleasant, it’s essential to go beyond odor removal and remove all remnants of the causes of bad odors like urine, fecal matter, bile, etc. Just because you don’t see or smell it doesn’t mean it can’t have harmful effects on your health.
Dead Pets Or Pet Mess
If pets are left indoors alone after their owner’s death, they may relieve themselves on carpets, furniture, and beds. Like odors, pet urine and feces can soak through the sub-flooring, making cleanup difficult. If the unattended death goes weeks without discovery, the pet may pass away and leave more cleanup. We’ve done multiple unattended death jobs in which we discover a pet was forced to consume its owner to survive.
Cleaning The Site
Cleaning the site of an unattended death is challenging because of the risk of blood borne pathogens, maggots, odors, and pets. You should never attempt to clean the site without the help of a professional decontamination company. A company like Spaulding Decon can assist in cleaning up hazardous areas and consult on what items need to be thrown away.
The first step after an unattended death is cleaning up the physical mess and dangerous biohazards that have been left behind, including removing blood, bodily fluids, and other bodily materials. The 2nd step is sanitization, which kills any bacteria, viruses, and other organisms with medical-grade chemicals. Usually, these first two steps aren’t enough to remove the odors, so deodorization is necessary. The last step is remediation, underlying the importance of restoring a home to its previous condition.
Sadly, the cleanup of an unattended death is up to the family, meaning you’re unlikely to receive any assistance from the coroner’s office, hospital, or anywhere else. Nobody should have to relive the loss of a loved one because they have to clean up their death site. Luckily, a decontamination company can help. If you discover an unattended death, the first thing you should do is leave the immediate area and call 911.
eBook - What To Do When Police Leave
There are so many misconceptions about law enforcement’s role when it comes to crime scenes and investigations. When law enforcement is called their sole responsibility is to collect evidence, interview witnesses, and solve a crime. There is no thought whatsoever to the cleanup or restoration to your home. Learn more in this free eBook by Spaulding Decon.
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