July 5, 2012 -- Few things taste better at the end of a summer day than a juicy burger or steak hot off the grill. But when a piece of wire from the grill cleaning brush gets stuck in your food, not to mention your throat or stomach, that dinner can quickly turn hazardous to your health. One hospital has reported a rash of such cases.
Doctors from Rhode Island Hospital reported this week that six people came to the emergency department from 2011 to 2012 with wire bristles from grill brushes lodged in their throats, stomachs, intestines or other organs after eating meat cooked on an outdoor grill.
The cases were the second round of such injuries at the hospital. In 2009 and 2010, another six patients came to the ER with the same problems, the doctors reported in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
Dr. David Grand, the lead author of the report and a diagnostic radiologist at Rhode Island Hospital, said the injuries are relatively infrequent compared with the number of people who grill and use grill brushes every day. But he said it probably happens more often than doctors may suspect.
"What was most striking about this collection is that we saw so many cases at just one hospital," Grand said. "I started getting calls from around the country from doctors who had seen similar injuries in their patients."
Concern over grill brushes has been simmering lately as these injuries have popped up around the U.S. In May, Sen. Charles Schumer called for a federal review of grill brush safety by the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Food and Drug Administration after hearing reports of two men, in New Jersey and Washington, who had been injured and needed surgery after accidentally ingesting a bristle.
In response to Schumer's request, the CPSC combed data on injuries from hospital emergency departments around the U.S. and found nine cases of people injured by swallowing brush bristles reported since 2007. Grill brushes were also responsible for 28 other injuries since 2007, eight of which came about when consumers reported that a bristle got stuck on the grill or in their food.
The commission is reviewing the reports "to see if there is an identifiable pattern of defect in the product category or a specific product that could create an unreasonable risk of injury or death," CPSC chair Inez Tenenbaum said in a letter to Schumer in June.
Grand said his team was unable to link any of the injuries at Rhode Island Hospital to a particular product or brand of grill brushes.
Mike Kempster, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Weber Grills, said the company has not received any reports from its customers of injury from their Weber grill brushes.
"We are aware that grill brushes can be a safety issue," Kempster said. "But when I hear reports like this, my first question is always, how old is the grill brush?"
Brushes used for more than two or three years or worn down by the elements may be more hazardous, he said.
Michael Wales, a spokesman for the Grill Daddy Brush Company, said the company rigorously tests its products and has never had any reports of consumers accidentally swallowing the stainless steel bristles from their brushes.
When swallowing a wire bristle leads to a puncture in the intestines, the bacteria lining the gut can filter into the bloodstream, increasing the risk of widespread infection in the body. Additionally, some of the bristles have to be removed surgically, which always comes with possible complications.
Once lodged in the body, the bristles may also puncture other, larger organs. When one woman swallowed a bristle, it went through her stomach and lodged in her liver, Grand said.
It's likely that many more people swallow wire bristles than those who show up in the ER, Grand noted.
"We don't know how many people ingest these things and have no symptoms. My guess is that's much more common than the injuries," he said.
Dr. Joel Levine, a professor of gastroenterology at the University of Connecticut, said he's not surprised that a wire bristle might get stuck in a bite of steak or a burger, but the risk of someone's being injured from their grill brush is probably a "low-probability event."
"Actually, the risks from what you are cooking on the grill likely outweigh the brush bristles," Levine said. "High amounts of grilled meats have been long known as a cancer risk."
The CPSC advises consumers to inspect their grills before firing them up, keeping an eye out for stray pieces of metal that could get stuck in food. Grand said barbecuers should replace worn-out grill brushes or consider using cleaning tools that don't use wire bristles.