As we dust off our barbecues in preparation for Memorial Day weekend, researchers offer a word of caution: check your food before eating - it may be tainted with wire bristles from grill-cleaning brushes. If swallowed, they can cause severe injury.

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Wire-bristle brushes used to clean barbecues can lead to serious injuries if ingested.

A new study published in the journal Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery estimates that between 2002-2014, more than 1,600 emergency department visits occurred as a result of wire-bristle brush injuries.

While wire grill brushes may be an effective cleaning tool prior to or following a cookout, the bristles can easily fall off and make their way into people's food.

If ingested, these little strands of metal can cause some serious injuries to the mouth, throat, and gastrointestinal region.

"One little bristle unrecognized could get lodged in various areas of the body, whether in the throat, tonsil, or neck region," explains study co-author Dr. David Chang, of the University of Missouri School of Medicine.

He notes that if the bristle passes through these regions without getting stuck, it may become embedded in the esophagus, stomach, or intestine.

"The biggest worry is that it will lodge into those areas and get stuck in the wall of the intestine. The bristles could migrate out of the intestine and cause further internal damage."

Wire-bristle brush injuries 'a potential consumer safety issue'

For their study, Dr. Chang and colleagues wanted to get an idea of the scale of wire-bristle brush injuries in the United States.

To do so, they analyzed data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission's National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS).

From this information, the researchers were able to estimate the number of emergency department visits that occurred due to wire-bristle brush injuries between 2002-2014.

The team found that 1,698 visits occurred as a result of such injuries during that time. Most of these injuries involved the mouth, throat, and tonsils, with some requiring surgery.

Dr. Chang notes that the incidence of wire-bristle brush injuries between 2002-2014 is likely to be even bigger, since the researchers did not account for injuries reported by urgent care facilities and other outpatient settings.

The researchers hope their findings will promote greater awareness among manufacturers, consumers, and healthcare providers of the potential health hazards associated with wire-bristle brushes.

"Wire-bristle brush injuries are a potential consumer safety issue, so it is important that people, manufacturers, and health providers be aware of the problem.

If doctors are unaware that this problem exists, they may not order the appropriate tests or capture the correct patient history to reach the right diagnosis."

Dr. David Chang

How to avoid wire-bristle brush injuries

With the barbecue season upon us - a period when wire-bristle brush injuries are most likely - Dr. Chang offers a number of tips to help avoid a visit to the emergency department.

  • Before cleaning your grill with a wire brush, check the utensil is in a good condition; throw it away if there are any loose bristles
  • Use alternative cleaning methods, such as nylon-bristle brushes
  • Check the grates of your grill before cooking food
  • Check your grilled food after cooking to make sure there are no loose bristles stuck to it

"If cautionary measures fail and individuals do experience problems with swallowing or pain after eating something that has been barbecued or grilled, they should seek advice from a physician or an emergency department and let the physician know that they were just at a barbecue event or they just grilled food," adds Dr. Chang.

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