Before you fire up your barbeque — and especially before you clean it in time for those longed-for summer cookouts — heed this cautionary tale.
In a TikTok with more than 34 million views, a pediatric emergency room doctor recently shared a story of a boy who was injured by a broken wire from a grill cleaning brush.
The 4-year-old clutched his ear and started crying soon after eating a hamburger at a barbecue. His family took him to the emergency room, but he was sent home with ibuprofen after all the tests were negative and his ear looked perfectly normal.
In the next 10 days or so he also saw an ear, nose, and throat doctor and had a second ER visit with a CAT scan, which also looked normal. He finally started to run a fever, stopped eating and drinking, and had to go back to the emergency room a third time at 4:30 a.m.
After more extensive testing, including a CAT scan with contrast, doctors finally found the culprit in his neck: a metal wire that was 2 centimeters, or just under an inch long.
“When I saw a long, thin metal wire, I knew exactly what that was,” Dr. Meghan Martin told BuzzFeed News. “It ended up being lodged in soft tissue near the tonsils causing pain.”
The wire caused an abscess that triggered the fever and swelling in his throat, said Martin, who is a pediatric emergency physician at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, and posted the video on her personal account.
Doctors removed the broken wire and abscess during surgery, and the boy recovered after antibiotic treatment.
These kinds of cases have occurred before, Martin said. People who clean their grill with a wire brush may not notice that a loose or broken wire is stuck to the grill, and it can end up in the food the next time they cook.
We asked experts how often these accidents happen and what you should use to clean your grill to reduce the risk they might happen to you.
The risks of grill-cleaning brushes are well known
Martin herself has had two other similar cases, including an older child who complained of belly pain and had to undergo emergency surgery for a bowel obstruction.
Dr. David Chang, vice chair of otolaryngology at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, did a study exploring the incidence of injuries linked to grill-cleaning brushes. He found 43 cases from one database which, when extrapolated, could amount to almost 1,700 emergency visits occurring between 2002 and 2014.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has detailed several similar cases, many of them in adults. All involved eating steak and other meat grilled on barbecues that had been cleaned with a wire brush.
Not surprisingly, cases spiked in July around the 4th of July.
Grill-cleaning brushes can cause several types of injuries
According to Chang’s study, bristles from this type of injury are most likely to lodge in the mouth or oropharynx (throat and tonsil area), but they can travel farther down the digestive tract.
“When they’re ingested with food, they tend to be lodged in the throat,” said Dr. Yomna Nassef, an emergency physician in New York City and spokesperson for the American College of Emergency Physicians. But Nassef personally saw one case where the wire had punched a hole in the esophagus.
“Any time there’s a perforation, that’s a very dangerous situation,” she said. “It can cause infection and can require surgery and antibiotics and may even be deadly.”
Treatment means removing the wire. Wires in the mouth or throat can sometimes be removed in the emergency room, Nassef said. But it’s not always that easy.
“If the wire is embedded, it can be like a needle in a haystack,” Chang told BuzzFeed News. “You may have to dig in, get past the carotid artery, and fish through muscle and space to get where you need to go.” One of the patients described in the CDC report had the wire removed via a colonoscopy.
Symptoms of a grill-cleaning brush injury
Believe it or not, swallowing wire bristles happens often enough that doctors do consider it when seeing patients with certain symptoms. Typically there’s instantaneous pain after swallowing, Chang said.
“Patients say it can feel like a fish or chicken bone,” Nassef said. “If it has moved down to the esophagus or stomach or intestinal tract, you might have really bad pain.”
Because the wire is metal, it should show up on an X-ray or CT scan, Chang said.
Other objects can be a problem
Wires from a brush aren’t the only foreign objects that ER doctors see stuck in people’s bodies. Anything from coins to safety pins to marbles can be a problem.
One of the most dangerous is a battery button, which is the type you might find in a hearing aid or watch.
“They have an electrical impulse and they secrete acid, so if they’re in the esophagus they’re going to cause significant tissue damage and move through the blood vessels,” Martin said.
Another concern is children’s toy water beads, which are tiny colorful beads made of gel that swell when placed in water.
“They can become very dangerous when ingested,” Martin said. “They increase in size but they’re not metal so they can’t be seen on imaging. They can create bowel obstructions.”
Similarly, tiny magnets are also a problem, even potentially life-threatening, because if a child swallows more than one, the powerful magnets can damage and obstruct tissue as they come together.
What experts recommend
If at all possible, try not to use wire brushes to clean your grill. “You can use a pumice stone, and some people will actually ball up some aluminum foil,” Nassef said. “There are also rubber utensils you can use.” Some people use an onion or half a lemon after the grill has cooled.
If you do use a brush, throw it out when it shows missing bristles or other signs of wear. And inspect the grill itself for any stray objects.
In response to this type of injury, Canada has established voluntary standards for manufacturing the brushes.