The bits of metal are tiny, but if ingested and left untreated they can cause serious injury and even death. And most of us will risk being exposed to them this summer.
They are the bristles on your barbecue brush. Less than half a centimetre long and very thin, they can become loose over time, dislodge from the brush and get stuck to the grill during cleaning. If transferred to food and swallowed, the sharp bits of wire can get stuck in the mouth, esophagus, stomach or intestine where they can puncture the intestinal wall and become a grave risk to your health.
That’s what happened to Yvette Fornelli on June 9. She found herself in excruciating pain and made her way to the emergency department of Royal Jubilee Hospital. Two CT scans and 27 hours later, Fornelli was in surgery, where she had a three-cm section of her small intestine removed to repair the damage.
“The surgeon still wasn’t certain what it was that had punctured the intestine, but they sent the material to the pathology lab, where they confirmed that it was a tiny piece of wire from the barbecue brush,” she said.
Fornelli is facing weeks of recovery and wonders why more isn’t done to warn the public of this serious hazard.
The threat posed by wire barbecue brushes has been known for years. But beyond the occasional warning from government agencies to check brushes for wear, and an industry accommodation that has placed small warning labels on some (not all) new BBQ brushes, there has been little or no action in response to the threat; this despite numerous studies indicating the severity of the risk.
In one such study, published in the medical journal, Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery, it was reported that between 2002 and 2014 an estimated 1,700-plus Americans attended emergency departments as a result of wire brush injuries. That number may well be much higher, it went on to say, as the injury isn’t regularly classified and tracked. Not only that, the statistics did not include clinics and regular doctor’s offices.
A Government of Canada web page warns of the hazard in a small section on barbecue safety, but does not advise people to refrain from using the brushes. The Canadian Society of Otolaryngology has gone further, in 2016 advising people to rid themselves of the brushes.
“Why do they keep selling these things when they know they’re a hazard? People should just throw them away,” said Fornelli. “And stores shouldn’t sell them.”
After hearing from the Victoria News, Island Health representative Meribeth Burton reached out to Dr. Samaad Malik, Fornelli’s surgeon, who confirmed the cause of her injury as “a perforation caused by a BBQ brush bristle.”
He went on to write, “These bristles are often fine and small, and when ingested can be difficult to identify and locate. In cases like this, patients present with abdominal pain and the object can only be discovered through a CT scan.”
Island Health plans to include a warning about the brushes in its summer safety checklist. Options to the wire BBQ brush include:
• pumice stones or grill stones
• nylon bristle brushes (for use on cold surfaces)
• wooden scrapers
• crumpled aluminum foil (careful not to burn your hand)
• any of a number of specialty scrapers and cleaning tools available at hardware outlets
If cleaning your grill while hot, ensure that whatever tool you use has a long enough handle to protect you from burns. If you’re still intent on using a wire brush to clean your grill, inspect the brush before using and if any bristles are loose, discard it immediately.