Nightmare on K St.: Spooky Assoc. Seeks Aid

Posted October 24, 2003 at 5:22pm

If it’s true that politics is a bloody business, the American Bio-Recovery Association should be mopping up in Washington.

Instead, the people there hardly get their phone calls returned.

The 7-year-old trade association represents more than 100 companies that specialize in cleaning up after some of life’s most horrific events, from suicides and homicides to plane crashes and car accidents.

With 4.7 million violent deaths each year, the blood-and-guts industry serves a messy, $100-million niche in the U.S. economy.

Now, in the time-honored tradition of nearly all U.S. industries, the bio-recovery companies want a little coddling from Washington.

Like so many well-established businesses before them, the industry is asking the federal government to approve regulations that — not coincidentally — will help them protect and expand their turf.

“Every Tom, Dick and Harry who has ever pushed a mop thinks they can make good money in this business,” said Kent Berg, head of BioCare Inc. and president of the industry’s trade association.

“But they have no idea how to do it,” he said. “If a cleaning company comes into your house and misses a dust bunny, it’s no big deal. On the other hand, if you come home and find a skull fragment, it’s a problem — especially if it’s your spouse.”

Cooper and the American Bio-Recovery Association want Congress or the Bush administration to set national standards for companies that are called to clean up after suicides and homicides or remove bodies that have been decaying for weeks. They also would like police officers and medical examiners to provide families with the names of certified bio-recovery companies. [IMGCAP(1)]

“We want more regulation,” Berg said. “Anything out of Washington would be a plus.”

The bio-recovery industry says the government should take some responsibility because local emergency personnel are the ones who designate crime scenes and biohazard zones in the first place.

“At a suicide, the police and the MEs take the big parts, but they leave everything else behind,” said Ron Gospodarski, president of New York-based Bio-Recovery Corp. and a former head of the trade group. “All we need is for the local governments to hand out a list of certified companies.”

If they get their way in Washington, the regulations would deliver a major boost to the industry.

A typical cleanup runs about $1,800, according to industry figures, though Berg said his company just handled a case in South Carolina that cost $10,000 because decomposing bodily fluids soaked through a ceiling and onto a lower floor.

Because the national standards would make it more difficult for new companies to enter the marketplace, the new regulations would be a boon to the companies now in business.

But companies also could face the increased cost of training employees to meet new federal standards for handling blood-borne pathogens and properly disposing bio-hazardous materials.

“Legislation is good as long as you don’t over legislate,” Gospodarski said.

Due to the nature of the work, most bio-recovery companies already pay their technicians about $30 an hour and provide them with about 40 hours of training.

In addition to some basic medical training, bio-recovery technicians go through an on-the-job apprenticeship to pick up the tricks of the trade such as “when you want to simply remove the blood — and when you want to remove the whole wall or floor,” Berg said.

Currently, a few states, such as New York, have limited health regulations for the industry in place.

But only California requires companies to register with the state and provide specific training to their employees. The law also takes a significant step forward for the bio-recovery industry by requiring businesses to clean up properly after an event.

“If someone gets caught on a saw, you can’t just have an employee wipe off the blood and move on,” Gospodarski said.

The American Bio-Recovery Association hopes the California law will become a model for federal regulators.

So far, the emerging industry has been unable to find a voice in Washington.

“None of us are politicians and none of us have any experience approaching a legislator. We know what our issues are, but we don’t know how to bring them to the attention of the right people,” Berg said.

The industry’s trade association has no paid staff and does not employ a single lobbyist.

That could change soon. Members of the American Bio-Recovery Association talked last month about expanding the association’s Washington presence during their annual conference in Biloxi, Miss.

“We have issues that could use lobbyists. But I am not sure that we could hire a lobbyist just yet,” Berg said. “I know lobbyists can be expensive. I am not even sure that we can afford a lobbyist, probably not even $20,000 to $40,000 a year.”

Still, the industry understands that hiring a lobbyist will take them only so far with Members.

“You can have all the lobbyists in the world, but if people are not knocking on your door and calling your office, nothing is going to happen,” Gospodarski said.

Because so few Americans are faced with cleaning up after a suicide or homicide, most lawmakers remain unaware of the industry and its issues

In 2001, Berg had several conversations with Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) about legislation. But after a few phone calls, nothing came of it.

“They show interest when you are in the office, but the problem is that it’s not important to them unless their constituents are coming [to them] or unless it happens to them personally,” Gospodarski observed.

A few years ago, a New York City councilman made a run at approving rules for the industry after a Brooklyn neighbor was murdered and the horrific crime scene remained grim for days.

In time, that effort was dropped. This summer’s shootout in New York’s City Hall sparked renewed movement once again.

Now, several months after the crime that killed a city councilman, Gospodarski said, “interest is falling off again.”