Nothing says summer like a juicy burger, sizzling steak or veggie kabob fresh off the grill. But cookout enthusiasts must be mindful of the fact that, along with their grilled foods, they may be swallowing something that could land them in the hospital. I’m talking about a topping that no barbecued food needs—the small wire bristles that can break off the brushes commonly used to scrub burnt bits of food off grill racks. Eew!

This bizarre danger came to light when physicians at Rhode Island Hospital recognized a pattern. During an 18-month span in 2009 to 2010, six patients came to the ER complaining either of throat pain upon swallowing or abdominal pain. Within the previous 24 hours, each had eaten meat cooked on a recently cleaned grill—and each was found to have accidentally ingested a wire bristle. In three cases, the bristles had lodged in the throat and were removed using a laryngoscope (a flexible fiber-optic tube), though for one patient, complications delayed removal for two weeks. In the other three instances, the bristles passed into the digestive tract and perforated the bowel, stomach and/or liver, necessitating surgery and an in-patient hospital stay.

The problem didn’t stop there. A follow-up report from the same physicians revealed that six additional cases of accidental wire bristle ingestion were treated in the same hospital system in a 16-month period in 2011 to 2012. Unfortunately, there is no data on the types or brands of grill brushes the 12 patients had used—but the implication is that this is an ongoing and potentially widespread problem. More info: Watch a YouTube video about the study at

Safer grilling: Instead of using a wire brush, consider an abrasive grill-cleaning block (I found one called GrillStone at If you do use a wire brush, be sure to inspect the grill rack for bristles after cleaning…before you begin heating the grill, wipe the rack well with a wet paper towel to remove any broken-off bristles…and replace any brush that shows signs of wear. Don’t be shy about inspecting your food before you eat. And of course, chew thoroughly. If you do develop pain in the mouth or throat (particularly upon swallowing) or in your abdomen after eating grilled food, ask the ER doctor about having an X-ray or CT scan to determine whether a wire grill brush bristle could be the culprit.

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