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Biohazard expert Enrique Castañeda brings death to life

For 'Sunshine Cleaning,' the cleanup expert helped dirty up the set in a real-world sort of way.

March 15, 2009|Cristy Lytal

It's never easy to cope with tragedy, but Enrique Castaneda can help. An expert in biohazard removal, he professionally cleans and disinfects areas that have been contaminated by human blood, brains, skin or other unsanitary parts and fluids.

"We've done jealous husbands killing their wives; we've done drug deals gone bad; we've done family members that passed away and nobody found them for two, three weeks," he says. "It's true when they say crime doesn't have an address. It happens anywhere."

Born in Manzanillo, Mexico, Castaneda moved to Albuquerque in 1988 at age 17 and opened a fire-and-water-damage-restoration company. In 2002, while reading his industry's trade magazine, Castaneda happened upon an article underlining the need for experts in the biohazard removal field. "I had experienced a family member that committed suicide, and unfortunately I was the one who got [stuck] cleaning up the mess, and I didn't know what to do," he recalls. "That's one of the main reasons that, as a business owner, I went this route, that I work like this."

After attending a weeklong seminar in St. Louis covering topics including proper biohazard disposal and the psychology of grief, he added this specialized service to his repertoire. A few years into his new business venture (and still in Albuquerque), he got a call to do some consulting work on "Sunshine Cleaning," a biohazard cleaning comedy currently in select theaters.

"Consulting is fun, but so is my job," he says. "The most rewarding part for me is being able to help family members when they're in a tough situation. People come home to a house, and they're not seeing what mess was created by the family member. It helps them to forget about it."

The thin red line: On "Sunshine Cleaning," Castaneda helped make messes instead of cleaning them up. "I did supply them with ample copies of photos of suicides with shotguns and stuff like that," he says, "so they knew about what was going to happen, how it was supposed to look. The one thing that we worked on a little bit harder was the body decomposing on the mattress. I felt like they did not have enough stain on the mattress [originally]. Once blood starts drying out, it gets a reddish color, like a very strong red. And that's something that we had talked about, the color of blood, how it changes with time. But we worked on that and we got it right, and I felt that it was very realistic."

Common scents: "We wear heavy-duty gloves and we only use them once," says Castaneda. "We use Tyvek suits and we only use them once. We have full-face respirators, which block the odor, but you still smell it eventually. The odor will be on our suits and stuff like that. I don't know if you've ever smelled a dead animal that's been decomposed -- it's probably about 10 times stronger when it's human. It's the strongest odor that I have found so far. That's what we call 'the odor of death.' "

Dealing with despair: Like the characters portrayed by Emily Blunt and Amy Adams in the film, real biohazard cleaners must do whatever they can to keep their spirits high. "When we're doing a [cleanup], and it's in a house with family, we like to tell the people to leave the scene [while we] work there and just leave a cell where we can call if they need to make a decision on something," says Castaneda. "It's because I tell my employees, 'If we're doing a scene, if you want to play music, listen to the music, whatever. You do that to get your mind out of that scene.' And obviously, if we have family members in the room, we're not going to have the radio blasting or even the radio to any level. I'm sure they would feel uncomfortable. But as a business owner, you've got to have a sense of humor. You've got to look at things differently because otherwise you would get depressed. There's so much stuff that you see."


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