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The #1 Reason to Throw Away Your Wire Grill Brush

Health experts say the small bristles can cause serious damage if accidentally ingested

spinner image grill brush scraping a grill
Photo Collage: AARP (Source: Getty Images)

For the overwhelming majority of adults who wind up at the emergency room (ER) complaining of pain from something they’ve accidentally swallowed, that something is usually a fish bone or chicken bone, maybe a toothpick.

But research suggests an outlier — a wire bristle from a grill brush, of all things — is to blame for over 130 ER visits per year. And if you’re wondering how much damage an inch-and-a-half-long wayward bristle can do, the answer is plenty.

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“The main danger is that the wire bristle will poke into or perforate the lining of your mouth, throat, esophagus or elsewhere along the intestinal track,” says Mark Prince, M.D., chair of the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at the University of Michigan Medical School. “In the least dangerous scenario, this causes pain and requires a visit to the emergency room to be evaluated and have the bristle removed. But if the bristle perforates the lining and migrates into deeper tissues — for instance, into the neck, chest or abdomen — this can lead to pain, possibly infection and the need for complex surgery to remove the bristle.”

That’s what happened to one of Prince’s patients, a 63-year-old woman who initially went to the ER complaining of an unusually painful sore throat. Only a few hours earlier, she explained, she was eating a hot dog her husband had cooked on the grill, and with that first bite, she experienced an immediate pain that grew so severe she had trouble swallowing. That’s when she and her husband headed to the ER.

Was it some strange type of food poisoning? An abscess in her throat?

The doctors examined her and found nothing out of the ordinary, so she returned home, only to have her symptoms worsen in the days and weeks that followed. After six months of searching for a diagnosis, she arrived at Prince’s clinic in Ann Arbor where a CT scan revealed the culprit: a wavy metallic object that looked like a piece of hair at the back of her throat.

A loose bristle from the brush her husband relied on to clean their grill had found its way into that long-ago hot dog she’d consumed. Although the bristle initially embedded itself in one of her tonsils, it eventually found its way into her neck before moving to an area at the back of her throat where it was not only easier for Prince to spot on a CT scan, but also safer for him to remove during surgery.

With that, “more than six months of hospital and clinic visits, pain, difficulty swallowing and recurrent episodes of throat swelling” came to an end, Prince says. 

Small, but mighty

How can something so tiny wreak so much havoc?

Those brass or steel bristles can break loose, and when they do, they tend to stick to cooked food, whether it’s the bits and pieces stuck on the grill grates or the actual food that finds its way onto your paper plate and into your mouth. Once they’re ingested, the bristles, which “are fine, quite sharp and easily poke into tissue where they become lodged, can be hard to see due to their small diameter,” says Prince. “Once they are deeply imbedded, they can be very difficult to find and remove.”


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Research, including a study published in SAGE Open Medical Case Reports, shows just how hard they are for doctors to spot during an exam. Their minute size and tendency to migrate make diagnosis tricky — especially early diagnosis, which is critical to timely treatment. And the symptoms — a sore throat, fever, difficulty swallowing — can point to any number of conditions.

“Time is of the essence to avoid any complications,” says Sara Andrabi, M.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. With each swallow, the bristles can penetrate further into the tongue or throat muscles, and the further they become lodged, the more difficulty they are to locate and remove. The American Medical Association, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Health Canada have issued warnings regarding the risks of grill-bristle ingestion.

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What to use instead

To stay safe, the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery suggests the following:

  • Examine your wire grill brush closely before each use.
  • Discard any loose or dangling wire bristles.
  • Inspect the grill’s grates before placing food on them.
  • Check your food after grilling for any potentially harmful particles.

And Consumer Reports suggests replacing the brush after 100 uses or at the end of every grill season.

Better yet, advises Prince, toss your wire grill brushes. “A number of people are injured by these wire bristles each year, and simply changing the way you clean your barbecue grill or other cooking surfaces can eliminate this risk completely,” he says. “Just stop using the wire bristle brush. The bristles are fine and very difficult to see if they become dislodged from the brush onto the grill and then are picked up on the food being served.”

Instead, use a pumice stone, grill stone or scraper, nylon-bristle brush, liquid grill cleaner, or simply grab a balled-up piece of aluminum foil and use grill tongs to hold it as you scrub your dirty grill grates. Cooking experts at Bon Appetit and Southern Living even recommend using an onion cut in half to scrape the grill clean.

But what if you’re not in charge of the grill? How can you safeguard against ingesting a bristle without insulting the grill master? “If you have access to the grill, check it for any loose bristles before cooking starts,” says Andrabi. “Before eating, inspect food for any visible bristles, especially if you notice anything unusual or sharp. You can politely inquire if a wire brush was used for cleaning the grill.”

Most importantly, she adds, “Inform friends and family about the dangers of wire grill brushes and advocate for safer alternatives.”

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