Ask Keri: I saw some scary reports in the news about people swallowing grill brush bristles. Should I avoid using a wire brush?
Keri Says: Ugh! Summer grilling is supposed to be about relaxing by the pool while munching on shrimp kebabs and sipping low-sugar cocktails. Now we have to worry about carcinogens and swallowing wire bristles?
Unfortunately, there is some real cause for concern (which I’ll explain below). Don’t worry, though: There are a few super simple ways to avoid the danger so you can relax and enjoy every bbq. Here’s what you need to know.
The Problem with Wire Grill Brushes
Basically, the issue is that the coarse wire bristles from your grill brush can break off and get into the food you’re grilling. If you then swallow one, it can puncture parts of the digestive system like the esophagus, intestines, stomach, or liver. That can result in serious pain and cause bigger issues if the punctures are major.
Research on the problem is pretty slim, so it’s hard to say how common it is. In 2012, the CDC issued a warning about the danger after a hospital in Rhode Island published a paper describing six cases they’d seen over an 18-month period. Another study published in 2016 looked at national emergency room data and estimated that about 1700 people visit emergency rooms each year due to swallowing the bristles (with the most cases occurring in July, naturally). Those numbers are not definitive and if they were, they’re very, very small.
Still, the CDC warns that the bristles are hard to see on X-rays and other scans because they’re so tiny, so it’s good to be aware of the problem and to take steps to avoid it, if possible.
How to Avoid the Danger
The good news is that there are easy ways to lessen the chances you’ll be headed to the ER after dinner instead of taking a moonlit dip in the deep end.
If you want to stick to using a wire grill brush, use it for one season and then toss it, since the bristles are more likely to detach after repeated use. When you use it, take a few minutes to inspect the grill surface for bristles before putting the food on.
Even better, opt for a different kind of brush that doesn’t come with wire bristles. Great, effective options include brushes made with nylon bristles, “stone” tools like this one that work like a Pumice stone scrubbing your skin, or brushes that use mesh scrubber pads that resemble Brillo.
And then there are two really cool DIY methods. One: Crumple up aluminum foil into a ball and use that to scrub, like this. Two: Cut an onion in half and use tongs or a fork to rub it all over the hot grill grates like this. Vegetables! Is there anything they can’t do?