What is that horrible smell!?”

Those were the first words that entered my mind as I walked into a local medical facility in the Mendocino County area of California. One of our major hospital management clients called us with reports of a serious odor dilemma in one of their primary medical buildings. They had already spent thousands of dollars trying to eliminate the smell with no success.

The management company reported that during a rain storm several weeks ago, they had a fairly serious moisture intrusion issue in the main lobby areas of a medical facility. When the loss first occurred, they initially contacted a repair contractor thinking it would just be a simple fix. They were wrong. The contractor spent weeks trying to mitigate the damages, as well as the strong smell. They set up containment under negative air pressure, drywall was removed and wood framing was sanded and encapsulated - all to no avail. The smell was still there, and it was getting worse.

The management company finally realized that they were dealing with an unknown source. Since we were their “specialty” restoration contractor on their preferred vendor list, we got the call to help.


Locating the Source

If there is one thing that we as a company have learned about odor issues, it’s that you always start with the source of the odor and work your way out. As we walked into the building to inspect the loss for the first time, we knew there had to be a significant source to the odor, as the smell was pungent and disturbing. It was the type of smell we’re used to encountering on a bio-related clean-up job rather than a flood issue. I knew the smell wasn’t mold, but just to be sure we had a hygienist pull a spore sample. So the question remained, if not mold, then what was it?

More investigating had to be done. We walked outside of the building, as we wanted to look at the loss area from a different angle to see if an alternate vantage point made a difference. Directly above the affected area was a large exterior soffit with a blue metal roof spanning the length of the building acting as an awning for weather protection. Could this be the source of the smell? Had something died in there?

We climbed on the flat roof to investigate further. Right away we saw signs of pigeon activity, but no pigeons. Upon taking a closer look at the roof, the pieces of the puzzle were starting to come together - the puzzle wasn’t turning out to be a pretty one. We realized that a secondary roof drain called a “scupper” was leading directly inside the exterior soffit. (See Image 1) This scupper is meant to act as a secondary roof drain in the event that the primary roof drain backs up. In this case, the primary roof drain was severely backed up with a large amount of pigeon feces, causing water to run directly into the exterior awning, or soffit. Not only did this scupper provide direct access for water to flow into the soffit and eventually into the interior of the building, but it also allowed access to a large flock of pigeons, which made it their home for the past several years. It was a disaster.

All mitigation companies know that with moisture and an organic food source comes microbial growth. This was a microorganism sanctuary. One can only imagine the fester of microbial activity and decomposition that was taking place in this environment. I cannot describe the smell of death and decay that was emanating from that tightly confined space. As I peered inside the hole looking in, the smell and heat hit me like a ton of bricks. Hundreds of dead and living pigeons laid there in the mire of feces and feathers. (See Image 2)

In restoration work you have to be willing to go into every job with an open mind. After all, there is profit in every type of disaster relief job, even if pigeons are that disaster.


A Job for the Birds

This was no simple fix. The job was going to be extensive and expensive. It was critical to plan ahead for some of the challenges we’d face. Here were some of those challenges:

  • The work area would be considered a “permitted confined space” due to the fact that the area posed severe health risks and potential carbon monoxide exposure to the crew from the off gassing of the wet droppings and decay.
  • The area had to be fully contained with rigid exterior containment and full interior containment. Full decontamination areas for every access point.
  • The work had to be done under negative air for the duration of the job, but at the same time the crew had to have fresh air supply.
  • Due to OSHA permitted confined space requirements, the airspace had to be continually monitored with an Altair 4x gas detecting meter while in the confined space.
  • A confined space entry permit system would need to be implemented with a full-time safety attendant in place at all times, as well as regular atmospheric conditions being logged and tracked every hour.


All of these requirements amounted to more time and planning for the job, but these steps proved to be just as critical as the job itself.

Safety is always a chief concern when dealing with a contaminated area. Initially we performed the work with full face masks equipped with organic vapor cartridges and two layers of gloves and suits to avoid tears in the PPE. Once we worked our way to the heavily saturated remains, we noticed we could still smell the strong odor through the full face masks. We immediately switched to using an air supply respirator system to avoid exposure and purchased specialized suits, which were more durable and allowed for breathability while still keeping contaminates out. Each technician, along with their tools, was decontaminated in a pre-established area. Taking it one step further, a temporary washout area was set up for workers to rinse off at after every change of PPE. We weren’t going to take any chances when it came to safety.

Heat was another concern. The coolest the confined space ever got was 90° F and the hottest we metered was 120° F. Our technicians would be working in full PPE, so heat exhaustion was a factor. Water breaks were given every 45 minutes and fresh air supply was vented into the work area while still maintaining negative air pressure.

Yes, doing this job with safety in mind did mean that it took a little longer, but that was anticipated and accounted for in our pre-estimate. Safety is not free. The client knew this and it was what solidified our bid - they knew we were going to do the job right.


The Removal Process

The removal process was done in several different stages due to the vast scale of the affected areas. For safety concerns, we didn’t want the technicians going too deep into the confined space. Since it was a permitted confined space, the technicians had to wear chest harnesses attached with a 50-foot lanyard in the event they needed to be extracted if they were in distress. We also created several entry points to access the soffit areas in different sections. Each entry point had a full-time safety attendant staying in constant communication with the technicians. We did not want any of our crew left on their own or to feel abandoned in that horrible working environment.

Removing the living birds proved to be a little easier than we had pictured prior to starting the job. There were over 100 live birds still in the confined space. I pictured them attacking, pecking and dive bombing us as we invaded their well-established home. However, with a little persuasion, they willfully left. Each night when entering the containment, they came marching out. They almost seemed eager to escape, as I think the dehydration and human invasion got the better of them. As far as the removal of the deceased birds, feces, eggs and feathers go, it was pretty basic. We wet down the areas prior to removal to control the dust, scooped it up and bagged it. This process took approximately 500 labor hours and roughly 400 bags of debris. Once the contaminants were removed, all of the surfaces were HEPA-vacuumed, treated with an enzyme-based antimicrobial, encapsulated and finished off by spreading a dry pellet, eco-friendly absorbent to soak in any leftover odor. The goal was not to mask the odor but to physically remove the source.


Lessons Learned

Looking back I almost said “no” to this job. But by looking outside the box and being willing to accept new challenges, we as a company learned two very important things from taking it on:

1. Working on jobs outside of your normal comfort zone forces you to take your company to the next level. It inspires new thought processes and new ideas.

2. Do your research before you turn down a job. You never know if a job is “for the birds” or if it is for you.

In the ever changing scene of restoration, we must be diverse and adaptable. I never thought I would be able to add “pigeon removal” to my resume, but I’m glad I did.