Wire Grill Brushes Are Injuring People—Is It Safe To Use Them?

Wire Grill Brushes Are Injuring People—Is It Safe To Use Them?

Barbecues may bring to mind fun in the sun, but your favorite summer pastime can also come with a dangerous side effect: wire grill brush bristles lodged inside your food.

In May, a Wisconsin man made headlines after revealing he had accidentally eaten a bristle from a wire grill brush that had become stuck to the grill grate and ended up in his steak. After developing stomach pain and a fever, Wayne Ramcheck went to the hospital, where doctors discovered a one-inch-long grill bristle that had pierced through the side of his intestine. Ramcheck had to have the bristle surgically removed, and it took him seven weeks to recover.

He’s not alone: Every summer, stories surface of people who have medical emergencies after accidentally eating a wire grill brush bristle. A case report published by the American College of Surgeons (ACS) last year outlined the dangers associated with brill brushes, calling bristle ingestion a “public health problem.”

So, should you avoid using wire grill brushes or eating food from grills cleaned with them? Here’s what ER doctors and a grilling expert had to say.

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It’s hard to know how many people have been injured by wire grill brushes, but one study estimated that it sends more than 130 people to the emergency room each year. In other words, it’s pretty rare—but it happens enough.

“I have not seen this, but I have colleagues who have,” Ali Jamehdor, DO, an emergency medicine physician and medical director of the Weingart Foundation Emergency Department at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, told Health.

Wire grill brushes usually injure people after the bristles accidentally end up on the grill. “Any time you brush the grill with metal, a piece of it can end up on the grill,” Jamehdor said. “If you place a piece of meat on top of that spot, the wire bristle can become embedded in your food.”

These bristles are usually tiny, making it less likely that you’ll notice if you swallow one, Eric Adkins, MD, an emergency medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told Health.

Once you eat a bristle, it can end up lodged in any part of your digestive tract. According to the ACS report, the most common injuries resulting from wire brush bristle ingestion involve the oral cavity (inside of the mouth) and oropharynx, which is the middle part of the throat, behind the mouth. But more severe injuries like intestinal perforations can also happen.

“If the bristle pierces through the intestinal lining and is able to get through the other side of the intestine, you’ve created a small opening for the bacteria and contents in your gut to seep out,” Adkins said. That can lead to a life-threatening infection called peritonitis.

This is an emergency situation that “definitely needs surgery,” Jamehdor said. “It’s a horrible injury.”

“If care is delayed, it can be catastrophic,” added Adkins.

Not cleaning your grill after using it isn’t the answer. In fact, Paul Sidoriak, founder of the grilling recipes and guides website Grilling Montana, told Health that you should clean your grill before every use. The reason? Safety. 

“We wash our pots and pans after every use so that leftover foods don’t make us sick, and the same cleaning standards should be met for your grill,” he said. Leftover food, oils, and partially incinerated bits that cling to the grill “will quickly become rancid,” Sidoriak said.

Jamehdor suggests using grill wipes or investing in a grill brush that doesn’t contain bristles to clean your grill. “They have ones that have a sponge or towelette material that can be rubbed over the grill,” he said. “There are no metallic parts or pieces.”

Ceramic stones and burlap cloths may also be helpful, especially if you use them when you’re done cooking and the grill is still warm, Adkins said.

If a wire grill brush is all you have, Sidoriak recommends trying this hack: Clean the grill with your wire brush, then make a ball of aluminum foil about the size of your fist and use that to make a second pass over your grill’s grates. ”Pay close attention to any stuck-on food or uneven grill grate surfaces,” he said. “If a wire brush is likely to lose a bristle, that’s where it will happen.”

This second pass over your grates with the ball of foil “should be enough to release just about anything stuck to it,” Sidoriak said. It’s also a good idea to closely inspect your grill for wire bristles before using it, according to Adkins.

Still, Adkins recommends cleaning your grill with non-metal methods if you can. “There are alternatives to a wire brush if you’re looking for maximum safety,” he said.

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