BBQ season: Are metal wire grill brushes dangerous? An ER doctor explains

As temperatures spike in Canada, an ER doctor explains why you should be wary of metal grill brushes.

·4 min read
Can a BBQ brush send you to the ER? A viral TikTok is warning of the dangers of this common summer item.
Can a BBQ brush send you to the ER? A viral TikTok is warning of the dangers of this common summer item.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

Temperatures are spiking across Canada this week — which means many Canadians may be getting their grills out. But can your grill brush send you to the emergency room? According to Dr. Megan Martin, a pediatric emergency room doctor at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, if you aren’t safely cleaning your grill grates this spring and summer, it’s a growing possibility.

In a recent viral TikTok, Martin shared the case of a 4 year old boy who ended up in her care thanks to a small wire bristle from a grill brush that got lodged in his throat.

After eating a hamburger at a family barbeque, he started clutching his ear, crying. His family took him to the emergency room, but he was quickly sent home with ibuprofen, after having a “totally normal ear exam” and passing all his other tests.

“He had pain immediately after ingesting the wire bristle,” Martin tells Yahoo Canada. So much so that his family actually told doctors they thought he had been stung by a bee because it all happened so quickly. “This is one of the reasons we didn't do much further testing initially, because we really thought he had been stung.”

Two days later he followed up with an EMT and a CAT scan was done on his second trip to the ER around day four. Once again, all of his tests came back normal. His family continued the ibuprofen at home and started using numbing drops in the ear, but nothing was giving their son relief.

Around day 10, he ended up in the emergency room for the third time after running a fever. At this point he was also having trouble eating and drinking. Thankfully, Martin finally got her answer on a CAT Scan done with contrast, where a 2-centimetre metal wire was seen lodged in the soft tissue of his throat. An abscess had developed around it.

Surgery was done to quickly remove the wire bristle and within a couple days he was almost completely back to normal.

Is it necessary to stop using your wire barbeque brush?

While those steel or brass grill brushes can seem like the most effective option for cleaning your BBQ, the painful truth is that the wire bristles easily break off and get stuck in the grill grates where they can eventually end up in your food- causing serious internal injuries.

“The throat area, the mouth, and the abdomen are all pretty common locations for these to happen," Martin says.

And according to data from Health Canada, the number of Canadians with internal injuries due to ingesting bristles from metal barbeque brushes is on the rise.

Martin says the abdomen is actually the most common area these kinds of injuries happen- and unlike having a metal bristle stuck in your throat you’re less likely to feel localized pain immediately.

“There’s a nerve that goes through the throat, that if irritated causes pain in the ear,” Martin notes. This is called referred pain and explains why her patient felt immediate discomfort in his. “The pain is really coming from that throat area, but you’re feeling it in a different location.”

When a metal wire makes its way to the stomach it's likely to cause stomach aches, nausea, poor appetite, and in some cases vomiting. But, it can take a while for symptoms to progress enough to want to go see a doctor. Left untreated though, a metal bristle in the abdomen can lead to things like “intestinal blockages or perforations where the bowl gets popped open.”

How can you safely clean your BBQ without a metal grill brush?

The good news is, grill brushes are easy and inexpensive to replace.

“There are lots of other options out there to clean the grill, and most of them don’t carry the same risk as using a metal wire brush,” Martin agrees. Sponges, pumice stones, nylon brushes and wood grill scrapers are some of the safer alternatives on the market.

Martin even recommends using an onion, as an all natural — and cost-effective — option. So long as you don’t have a sensitivity, or allergy. “Aluminum foil is also a reasonable option.”

If you’re still tempted to hold on to your metal wire brush, keep in mind, one bristle is all it takes.

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