Beware the barbecue brush this season
A new report has documented six cases of people accidentally swallowing wire bristles from grill-cleaning brushes while eating food cooked on a grill. In each of the cases, the metal bristles apparently became lodged in the grill, then were embedded in steaks and burgers that were served to people who quickly got sick and had to be hospitalized.
Wire bristles are not typically something backyard chefs are thinking about when they heat up their grills. But a small number of similar cases have been reported in the medical literature in recent years, and the authors of the new report are urging people to be mindful that wire bristles can easily get caught on grills and pose a serious hazard. In almost all of the cases, the patients were eating burgers, steaks or some other meat that had been cooked on a grill that was recently cleaned or scraped with a wire brush.
“It’s always been meat so far,” said Dr. David Grand, the author of the new report and a radiologist in the diagnostic imaging department at Rhode Island Hospital. All of the cases were handled at that hospital and reported in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
Dr. Grand published a similar study in April that documented another group of cases at the hospital that occurred between May 2009 and November 2010. All of those cases were similar: The patients had been eating grilled meat when they felt severe neck or abdominal pain. At the hospital, imaging tests showed small wire bristles lodged in their bodies, and detailed case histories revealed that the grills they ate from had recently been scrubbed with a wire brush.
“When we reported the first six cases a few months ago, I immediately started getting e-mails from people around the country saying they had seen other cases,” Dr. Grand said. “But no one had ever systematically put them together.”
Other reports, though rare, have documented cases in various places, including Philadelphia and Kansas City, Kan.
In the latest report, the six new cases involved men and women ages 31 to 64. All arrived at Rhode Island Hospital with pain and trouble swallowing or severe abdominal pain. Imaging tests later revealed bristles lodged in the throat, stomach or intestines.
“They have all been people who were at a backyard residential barbecue,” Dr. Grand said. “We think that the mechanism is that bristles from these brushes become dislodged, then they stick to the grates of the grill and become embedded in the food and people accidentally ingest them.”
None of the cases were fatal, but some of the patients have had to endure uncomfortable procedures to remove the bristles. In one case, a wire bristle perforated a patient’s intestinal wall and had to be surgically removed. “We had another patient in whom the wire was in the large intestine, and that was removed with a colonoscope,” Dr. Grand said.
At this point there is no way to know how prevalent the phenomenon is, Dr. Grand said. “The scary part is that we have no idea,” he said, adding that doctors should report any new cases at saferproducts.gov. “We’ve identified 12 at one hospital in just the past couple of years, so we know that it’s much more common than anyone suspects.” Some patients may have swallowed bristles and then passed them without ever knowing.
As grilling season picks up, Dr. Grand said that the best measure people could take is to be cautious before grilling. Throw out old or worn metal brushes, and look for different ways to clean the grates. If the grill was recently cleaned with a wire brush, inspect the grill before lighting it or cooking on it.
“In my house I wipe the grate down with a wet paper towel, hoping that if there is a bristle stuck in the grill, I’ll remove it,” he said.
By ANAHAD O'CONNOR .well.blogs.nytimes.com