On July 14 2019, a Facebook user shared a photograph purportedly illustrating the risks posed by grill brushes and the metal they can leave behind attaching to food that is consumed. In an attached status update, the poster warned:
I would suggest to anyone that has a metal brush to clean your grill get rid of it. This is the result of eating a bristle off of one. I am looking at a long recovery. — at Pelham Medical Center.
In the attached image, an exposed abdomen bears a long and painful-looking scar with more than twenty staples. No other details about the image were included with the post, but the obvious inference was that this was the result of surgery that was required after inadvertently ingesting metal fragments left on a grill by a cleaning brush.
No information was included about how the injury manifested or which symptoms people already exposed to grilled foods might exhibit. However, news stories from previous years indicated that even if rare, summer grilling has occasionally led to people accidentally consuming food with grill brush debris attached.
In May 2015, CBS reported that a Connecticut woman had been treated for the same injury. Her symptoms were described as a “sharp” and “unusual” pain:
[In May 2015], a woman in Connecticut needed emergency surgery to remove a wire barbecue brush bristle from her digestive tract — and doctors say she’s not the first. Cheryl Harrison of Wallingford, Connecticut, was rushed to the hospital by her husband after feeling a sharp and unusual pain in her stomach.
That pain was caused by a single stray bristle that had fallen off the metal grill cleaning brush and found its way into the hamburger she ate. She came into the emergency room within a day because of severe abdominal pain. After a CT scan showed the wire, doctors were able to remove it from her stomach through laparoscopic surgery.
The article went on to describe a similar case in which the patient was not made aware of the injury as quickly. One doctor stated the injury was difficult to identify because the small size of the bristles meant they were difficult to find:
Dr. Aziz Benbrahim, her general surgeon at MidState Medical Center, told CBS News she was lucky because she came in right away. A previous patient of his who had a grill brush wire stuck in his system waited for a couple of weeks. It had punctured his intestine.
“I had to open him up completely, ” said Benbrahim. “Then we remove this wire and we found out also why he had chest pain — because he also had pulmonary embolism, which is a blood clot in his lungs.”
“He was just lucky he was still alive,” he added. “All from this wire.”
“Nobody knows the statistics, that’s the problem. The only paper published talks about 6 or 7 cases and I believe it’s a much, much more common,” Benbrahim said. “When I was talking to my colleagues at the hospital, I was surprised that all of them had at least one or two patients like this. I didn’t think it was that common. And this isn’t a very big hospital, so I assume that in a bigger hospital they would have more.”
The story further noted that in one hospital, at least six patients had similar injuries from ingesting grill brush wire over an 18-month period. One year later, WTSP reported that a man in Florida was injured the same way:
A warning if you plan to fire up the grill this holiday weekend. A Lakeland man discovered a hidden health hazard the hard way, and it could be on your grill right now.
“This is my little parting gift,” says Clif Hennecy. It’s a souvenir from the doctor’s office that Hennecy never imagined his doctor would find stuck in his stomach during a routine checkup.
“It’s just a tiny, little bristle, but it’s stainless steel,” says Hennecy.
The Lakeland man says the metal bristle came from the brush he used to use to clean his grill.
“It’s a scary proposition having one of those lodged inside your stomach. It can cause abscesses, and cause infections, and it can cause people to die,” Hennecy says.
And in July 2017, a boy in Canada was hurt when he swallowed wire fragments:
Jenna Kuchik was kicking back after a July 4  barbecue with her fiance and three children when her 4-year-old son, Oliver Schenn, began to scream in pain.
Terrified, Kuchik ran for the EpiPen. Oliver, whom Kuchik and her fiance, Matt Schenn, affectionately call Ollie, has a severe nut allergy. But the boy was not exhibiting any of symptoms of a reaction — only choking, screaming and crying.
Twenty-four hours and two hospitals later, Ollie would emerge from surgery after doctors removed two tiny metal fibers from his esophagus. The culprit: the family’s wire barbecue brush.
That outlet included some statistics about frequency, noting it was low but acute, and possibly underreported:
Barbecue brushes have caused an estimated 1,698 emergency room visits from 2002 to 2014, according to a study published in 2016 in the journal Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. The rate of injuries is low when compared to similar emergencies, like children ingesting batteries, but the study’s lead, Dr. David Chang, associate professor at the University of Missouri’s department of otolaryngology, believes the data underrepresents the total volume of injuries. Urgent care clinics and primary care doctors likely see many similar cases that aren’t covered by the data in Chang’s study.
A 2018 Consumer Reports article provided alternative methods of cleaning a grill without the ubiquitous wire brush:
Consider alternative cleaning tools. Depending on what type of grill you have, you might try cleaning warm grill grates with a tool such as a pumice stone or a coil-shaped bristle-free brush. Check your owner’s manual for recommendations … You can also brush loose food particles off a warm grate with a wad of crumpled-up aluminum foil. Make sure grill grates are not hot enough to burn you.
The claim about ingesting grill brush wires and requiring hospitalization represents a known but rare risk. Experts advise anyone who experiences symptoms like stomach pain after consuming grilled food to seek medical attention. Instead of using a wire grill brush, consumer safety advocates advise alternative grill cleaning methods, such as aluminum foil.