Brush up on safe grill care to avoid painful barbecue pitfalls


By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director Northeast CONTACT

Posted June 15, 2014, at 11:32 a.m.

When little bits of wire find their way onto the food you grill outdoors, serious health problems can result. Just ask Karen Dunlap of Houston.Just a few bites into her meal of grilled chicken last week, Dunlap felt a huge pain when she swallowed. A broken bristle from a wire brush had been left on the grill, found its way onto her chicken and down her throat. She needed endoscopic surgery to have the wire removed from her esophagus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highlighted a similar problem two years ago, and its warnings are worth repeating. People unknowingly ingested wire bristles from brushes used to clean grills.

The CDC studied patient visits to emergency departments in Providence, Rhode Island hospitals over 15 months, starting in March 2011. The injuries ranged from punctures in the soft tissue of the neck causing painful swallowing to cuts in the gastrointestinal tract requiring surgery.

Wire brushes are commonly used to clean grills. The problem is that not all brushes are created equal. Poorly made brushes can lose bristles or the bristles can break, allowing bits of wire to get caught in the grill surface. The bits of metal can then be transferred to food that’s cooked on the grill.

Doctors urge people who cook outdoors to inspect their grills carefully before using them, to make sure that no bristles or pieces of bristles can be picked up by food as it’s being cooked. Some urge people who use wire brushes to follow up with paper or cloth towels to remove any debris that may be left behind after brushing.

Weber, which manufactures several lines of grills, says many people leave their wire brushes outside, where harsh weather can speed their breakdown. Weber urges people to inspect brushes for signs of deterioration and replace them if they’re badly worn or split.

You can do a simple test with a pair of pliers. Grab a bristle and pull with moderate pressure, as though you were pulling blades of grass out of your lawn. If the bristles come out, replace the brush. Buy a long-handled model to keep your hands out of the fire. Choose a brush with stainless steel bristles that feel firmly attached.

You may want to consider other ways of cleaning the grill. Some abrasive pads and spray-on type cleaners can effectively remove food residue and clean the cooking surfaces. Wad up a piece of aluminum foil — a baseball-sized hunk should do — and see how effectively it cleans.

While bristle injuries are not widespread, illnesses and injuries from poor food handling are unfortunately much more common. Health officials urge caution when cooking outdoors.

Make sure meats are handled safely and are kept away from fresh fruits and vegetables. Cook meat thoroughly and use a meat thermometer to verify that it’s done. Don’t leave food out any longer than necessary, to discourage growth of bacteria.

The CDC has more information online at

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit or email

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