Deaths, drugs and hoarder houses
FOR Nastassia Jones, the most confronting day at work this year was when she saw her first "unattended death".
An elderly man who lived alone had died in his home.
It took three weeks for anybody to notice but eventually the neighbours complained about the smell and the man was discovered. Once the body was removed, it was Ms Jones's job to clean up the mess.
"Just seeing how he lived was so profound," says Ms Jones. "Seeing the dinner he must have made before he died, his stacks and stacks of art (and the) letters he had written.
"The contamination that results from an unattended death and the smell is certainly confronting too, but it's the context of a life lived that stays with you."
Ms Jones is a 31-year-old New Zealander who works as an administration manager and bio-recovery technician for Australian Forensic Cleaning.
Her role is primarily to answer calls from people who need biohazardous material cleaned up, which can include crime scenes, homicides, suicides, drug labs, sewage spills and hoarder houses.
She also assists with on-site forensic cleaning - as in the case of the elderly man who died at home - but this is mainly to understand how the process works so that she can explain it to potential customers.
Ms Jones got into the business of forensic cleaning after she worked at a not-for-profit funeral home. It was there that she learned about unattended deaths and how little assistance is available for the families involved.
When someone dies in a home, the police or investigators come to the scene, then the body is removed and then it's up to the family or property owner to clean up the mess. This is the point where people call Ms Jones.
"I have developed the ability to work with people who have faced loss. I think providing practical support goes a huge way towards supporting people emotionally. That's what I like about this job.
"Our service is something most people hope they never have to engage."
Since taking on the role earlier this year, Ms Jones admits that she has thought more about her own death.
"I do think about my own death, probably more than most people, but not in a bad way," she says.
"I feel lucky to know how things work when we die, as it's something people don't often want to talk about."
But death isn't the only part of the job. Cleaning up drug labs has become a growing part of the forensic cleaning business.
Last week, when news.com.au spoke to Ms Jones, her boss, Josh Marsden, was in Tasmania completing a "meth lab remediation". This is a process that becomes necessary after a home has been used as a laboratory to make methamphetamines or ice.
When asked what a former meth lab looks like, Ms Jones says it varies a lot.
"Some homes are trashed and filled with everything you would expect to see. Some are beautiful, neat, tidy family homes."
For rental property owners and would-be tenants, the particularly dangerous thing about a meth lab is that the chemicals are invisible and yet still present long after the cooking process is over. A dwelling could look perfectly clean but once the walls and furniture are swabbed and tested, it becomes clear that there are perilous levels of chemicals in the atmosphere.
"People sometimes only figure it out when they start getting sick, or the neighbours fill them in," said Ms Jones.
"Basically, contamination from meth permeates everything, and this releases over time. Even just someone smoking can make a home toxic to the point where we need to come in."
Ms Jones says she's still shocked by the sheer number of meth labs that she comes across through the job.
"We do meth lab remediations quite literally everywhere, from apartments in Melbourne's CBD to the most remote areas of WA," says Ms Jones.
"Australia is one of the worlds biggest consumers of meth, so it has to come from somewhere."
"It's not all big scale labs either, a lot of them are what they call 'shake and bakes' - where someone cooks it for their own use."
Another aspect of the job is cleaning houses that have been occupied by hoarders.
Hoarding disorder has been recognised as a mental illness in the DSM - V (Diagnostical Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) since 2013 and causes people to accumulate so many items that their home can become unliveable.
Ms Jones says that cleaning up a hoarder's house can be the most complex of all.
"Typically, forensic cleaners that work with hoarding are advised to clean out the home completely, generally while the hoarder is in hospital or not in the home. It is commonly understood that this can be traumatic for the hoarders," she explains.
"We're moving towards a harm reduction model which isn't commonly employed by specialist cleaners like us. Basically, we will make the home safe by creating pathways, treating contamination (and) ensuring heaters and stoves are not covered in clutter.
"It's a huge change in mindset for both us and people supporting hoarders. It's a massive and prevalent issue."
Ms Jones says that since working in the forensic cleaning industry, she's stopped collecting things because she could easily find herself on the hoarding spectrum. When asked if the job has changed her in other ways, she says it's made her more appreciative of some of the privileges she enjoys.
"It certainly puts things into perspective," Ms Jones explains.
"You feel pretty terrible whinging about a late ASOS delivery when you've just been speaking with someone who's just lost a loved one."
- If you or someone you know is in need of crisis or suicide prevention support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit the website.
- For more information on Forensic Cleaning Australia, visit the website.
- Continue the conversation with Nat Kassel on Twitter @natkassel