The term biohazard refers to a type of biological material that threatens living organisms. This is, therefore, a broad definition that encompasses a wide range of possible materials.
The most common types of biohazards are:
Human bodily fluids
If any of the above materials are present, the material is considered a biohazard and you will need to follow proper hazmat procedures.
The general rule of thumb is – if in any doubt, call a professional.
Biohazards are – by definition – extremely dangerous and cleaning them up improperly may cause consequences that go far beyond damaging your own health. Obviously, you don’t need to call a professional to clear up the blood splatters from a nosebleed; however, if you doubt that you can clean up safely and effectively, let a professional deal with it.
The Center for Disease Control highlights four levels of Biohazard Safety:
Materials that have little threat to humans and the environment around them or may not be effectively transmitted by contact.
Material that can cause severe illnesses in humans and can be transmitted through contact with the material.
Pathogens that may become airborne and then cause severe illnesses.
Any pathogens that pose a high risk of life-threatening disease for which there are no treatments.
Levels three and four are less relevant to the day-to-day lives of most citizens, and most of the safety and disposal procedures involved relate to medical facilities and scientific laboratories. However, there are certain principles that apply universally when dealing with hazardous waste.
The purpose of this guide is to discuss how you can assess the type of biohazard you are dealing with and therefore develop the best means of cleaning it up safely and effectively.
What is a biohazard?
There are lots of spills and leakages that can happen that are not classed as a biohazard, and therefore don’t require special procedures, equipment, or personnel to clean them up.
However, it’s critical to know what is classed as a biohazard so that you can take steps to stay safe if and when a spill occurs.
There are five categories of biohazards.
Solid Biohazardous Waste (Non-Sharps)
This refers to hazardous waste that has been contaminated with things like body fluids, body tissue, or microbial culture. The most common type of solid biological waste is a container or gloves that have been in contact with this type of biohazard.
If, for example, your sewage pipe backs up and leaks into the basement, the furniture and appliances that come into contact with the sewage become contaminated and therefore is classed as solid biohazardous waste.
In addition, items used in the cleanup, such as towels or mopping equipment will also be classed as solid biohazardous waste and will need to be disposed of using the proper procedures.
Liquid Biohazardous Waste
The most common type of liquid biohazardous waste is bloody and other bodily fluids from humans and animals. Because of the way that fluids leak and seep, these cannot simply be moved and stored – instead, the area they come into contact with will need to be treated with disinfectant and other chemicals.
Depending on the extent of the leakage and the items that it has come into contact with (a hard floor vs. a carpet, for example), you may be able to use household bleach as an adequate disinfectant. Otherwise, you may need a more industrial chemical disinfectant (and therefore professionals to make sure the usage is safe).
Biohazardous sharps are objects such as needles that are contaminated with biological material (Note: all unidentified needles should be treated as contaminated, even if they appear to be clean or new).
For example, if you find a needle on your property, you should always consider it to be a biohazard. This is also true of objects such as scalpels, as well as objects made of glass, such as microscopic slides, broken test tubes, and the like. The danger of these is that the sharp object may puncture the skin, and thereby cause the hazardous material to enter into your body.
Biohazardous sharps must be placed in a rigid and restricted container (to prevent it from falling out or someone from sticking their hands in).
Pathological waste refers to (according to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville), “all unfixed human organs, tissues, and body parts, except for teeth.” The problem with this type of hazardous waste is that it must be disposed of in a manner to avoid spillage, which is particularly difficult as further decomposition takes place.
In most cases, pathological waste is best handled by a professional. They will double-bag the material using the correct hazmat procedure. The material is then disposed of by incineration or treated by an alkaline digester.
Soil Collection, Treatment, and Disposal
Although soil may carry some of the characteristics of a biohazard (and is, if it has come into contact with some of the other biohazards listed above), it does not fall under the remit of biohazardous waste, and so special precautions are not necessary.
For example, if your home or basement floods and, when the waters recede, the mud and soil remain, you do not need to treat this as biohazardous waste. This type of material can be placed in a dumpster or reintroduced to your yard without further consideration.
Different types of biohazards
The three most common types of biohazardous waste found in private homes are the following (in order from most common):
All three have very different implications when it comes to the specific dangers and the nature of the cleanup effort.
Sewage backups and blackwater intrusions take place when a blockage occurs in a sewage pipe, or (less frequently) when there is a leak in a sewage pipe near a home and enters through foundation cracks.
The problems involved go beyond just the smell – although this is often the first sign that something is wrong; the three elements that need to be addressed are the sewage, the contaminants, and excess moisture.
Bloodborne pathogens can be from either humans or animals. These can be either as a result of a crime, or something more minor (in the former case, it is imperative that the police are notified – they will need to search for evidence before the cleaning process can take place). It may be optimal in these cases to hire professional services, particularly if there is an element of trauma involved.
If there are sharp biohazards involved, you may also need to follow additional hazmat procedures.
Methamphetamine Labs can be extremely dangerous because of the chemicals used in the manufacture of the drug – many are volatile and may be harmful. Again, you will need to alert the authorities in the case of the discovery of a lab on your property, before retreating to a safe distance.
If you are unsure of the nature of a lab or suspect a meth lab, it is safer to alert the police before touching anything yourself.
What do professional biohazard cleaners do?
If you decide to call in a professional biohazard crew, then they will be able to deal with the entirety of the cleanup process.
What they will do is dependent on the specific nature of the hazardous waste.
although generally the processes they follow will be:
First, to examine the scope of the biohazard in terms of the nature of the hazardous material and the size of the area affected. They will develop a clear plan for removal.
Second, the professionals will take active steps to manage the safety of those in the surrounding area and those who will be cleaning up the material.
Next, they will clear up the site using the correct equipment, chemicals, and mechanisms for disposal.
The removal of hazardous waste will follow the correct legal and best practice protocol, with particular reference to guidelines from OSHA/the CDC. The bulk of the material will be incinerated.
The professionals will then likely remove all porous materials (like carpet), which will also need to be incinerated.
Since this material has been contaminated, it is also classed as a biohazard.
Following this, all non-porous elements and non-hazardous materials will be either decontaminated or sanitized (if they can be salvaged) or removed from the area and incinerated (if they cannot be salvaged).
The area will then be deodorized and given a superficial clean to remove any enduring olfactory or visual evidence of the spill. Walls and floors may be repainted or resealed.
Finally, the professionals will run any last-minute checks to confirm that the plan has been fulfilled in its entirety.
At this stage, you may raise any queries or questions you might have.
Basements and cleaning biohazards yourself
The location of basements at the bottom of homes, often below ground level, as well as the number of pipes and appliances that run nearby, means that they are most likely the place where biohazard leaks take place.
By far the most common type of hazardous waste in basements is sewage caused by a backup.
Unlike water damage in a basement, sewage is a major biohazard because of the microbial contents; as a result, it is imperative that it is cleaned quickly and efficiently.
If you think the sewage in a basement is cleanable yourself (i.e. doesn’t require a professional), then you will need the following equipment.
Personal Protection Equipment (long sleeves and waterproof clothing, tall rubber boots, and eye protection)
Old towels and sheets (that you will dispose of post-cleanup)
Shovels (gardening shovels are best)
Fans and/or dehumidifiers (this will help with moisture removal)
Garbage bags (as strong and sturdy as possible)
The process of removal is fairly self-explanatory. The priority is to work as quickly as possible to prevent seepage. You should also address the source of the leak immediately to prevent your work from becoming futile as a result of further leakage.
You should open windows and doors to ventilate as much as possible, however unappetizing it may be to let the smell into the rest of the house.
You may also have to remove pieces of furniture that have been affected by the leakage.
Because of the wide range of materials encompassed by the term ‘biohazard’, there is a sliding scale of the best means of cleaning it up.
For example, if you are dealing with a dead animal or minimal human fluids having leaked in part of your home, you will not deal with the cleanup in the same way as if you are dealing with a major pathological waste leak.
Therefore, the first step is for you to assess the extent of the spill, and then to determine the correct course of action that follows. Central to this is the optimal hazmat procedure.
There are a number of universal procedures and rules. The first of these is that you should always ensure you are as safe as possible when cleaning up any hazardous waste. This is particularly true when it comes to dealing with sharps, which compound the danger involved.
The second principle is that you should always ensure that the material can be adequately disposed of, and totally removed.
Finally, you must make sure that the danger to the wider population is as minimized as possible. This involves reporting spills or leaks and making absolutely sure that you’re disposing of the material in a safe manner.
If you cannot do any of these things, then it is best to hire professionals to do the job for you.
Regardless of whether your insurance, you, or someone else is paying for the cleanup, you should make sure you sign off on all work taking place on your property and don’t let the professionals finish the job until you are happy with the final product.
Sources and Further Reading