A hard day’s work behind the grill leads to lots of tasty rewards: juicy rib eyes, seasonal zucchini, and a few ripe peaches for cobbler, to name a few. What’s not as enjoyable? The cleanup that’s required afterward.
Many people turn to what they know best—a wire grill brush—to get the job done by scrubbing the charred seasonings and sticky sauces off the grates. But after watching a now viral TikTok clip, I realized that may not be the safest method.
In the video, emergency medicine physician Meghan Martin, MD, describes a case of hers that involved a young boy with persistent, intense ear pain that stumped doctors; their initial tests couldn’t reveal a cause. Over a week later, they discovered the culprit: a two-centimeter grill brush bristle that made its way into his burger and became lodged in his throat tissue, causing referred pain to his ear. It was so serious, Dr. Martin explained, that the boy needed surgery to remove the wire.
Grilling is obviously top of mind for so many folks right now, so I wanted to dig into these claims to see if they’re as bad as they seem—and if there’s a way to prevent potential grill brush injuries in the first place. So I connected with Dr. Martin and other medical experts to get some answers.
What’s the concern with wire grill brushes?
The tools are typically made with stainless steel bristles, which can snap off as you’re cleaning the grill and stick onto its surface, Dr. Martin, of Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, tells SELF. This can be a problem when you’re cooking later. If you drop your veggie burgers or asparagus directly on the grates while those metal fragments are hanging around, they can get stuck in your food. Oftentimes, they’re challenging to notice because the bristles are so small and thin; some are only about an inch long, making them easy to hide on your plate.
Ingesting wires can be a serious health concern, says Dr. Martin. The sharp metal can get stuck in your throat or other parts of your gastrointestinal (GI) tract, Avanti Verma, MD, an otolaryngology surgeon at Yale Medicine, tells SELF. According to studies looking at hospital visits from ingesting wire grill bristles, injuries can include everything from punctures in the neck tissue to esophageal perforation to gallbladder inflammation.
What are the symptoms of a wire grill brush injury?
The type of effects you could experience really depends on where the bristle may be lodged, Ansley Roche, MD, an otolaryngology surgeon at Yale Medicine, tells SELF. Pain in your throat or neck area or difficulty swallowing could indicate a bristle stuck into the soft tissue of that area, explains Dr. Roche. If those pesky spikes make their way to your GI tract, they can cause stomach pain and nausea, says Dr. Martin.
Diagnosing wire brush injuries can be tricky, since many times, people may not even attribute pain or other symptoms to ingesting a bristle, says Dr. Roche—it’s possible to not even know you swallowed one. And it can be even more confusing for kids, who may not be able to express what type of pain they’re feeling or remember what they were eating in the days prior, says Dr. Martin. In fact, in the case she outlined on TikTok, neither the child nor parents put together that the ear ache could have been traced to the boy’s burger.
Keep in mind: Treatment for wire grill brush injuries can vary, and also depends on the part of the body it’s puncturing, says Dr. Roche. If the bristle is easy to spot, your doctor can simply pluck it out, she explains. If the spike has traveled further, you may need surgery to remove it and repair any damage.
So, how likely are these injuries?
It’s challenging to know the exact number of wire brush injuries because not all of them are reported, says Dr. Verma. And there’s not a whole lot of data on these kinds of accidents in general. However, a 2016 study published in Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery estimated that there were about 1,700 ER visits related to grill brushes from 2002 to 2014, which equates to about 140 cases per year.
While those stats don’t sound too steep, the “real” number is probably a lot higher, says Dr. Roche. Remember, it’s pretty common to not even know you’ve swallowed a wire bristle, says Dr. Roche. It could cause just mild symptoms, then naturally pass in your poop, she says, leaving you none the wiser to what you actually ingested.
So to be safe and dodge possible injury, Dr. Roche recommends that folks avoid the popular grill tool, especially since there are alternatives on the market.
How should you clean your grill, then?
The safest thing you can do is find another way to clean your grill. Luckily, you have options: Try replacing your wire brush with a stone scraper, ($12, Amazon), says Dr. Martin. You can use this tool on your grates to scrub away greasy patches and residue. This doesn’t pose the risk of those bristles because there are no spikes that can break off into your food.
If you can’t give up your beloved wire brush, here are some things to keep in mind:
- Replace it often. Dr. Roche recommends buying a new one every summer, since bristles can loosen with use.
- Inspect your grill brush each time before use, Dr. Roche says. You want to check for any loose bristles and pluck them out before they fall out on their own.
- Before you start up your grill, thoroughly wipe it down and examine it to ensure no bristles accidentally fell off from the brush during cleaning and stuck onto the grates, says Dr. Verma.
Keep in mind: These tips will not 100% protect you from accidentally eating a grill brush spike, says Dr. Martin. The only thing that could? Not using one that contains wires.
And let’s be honest, you don’t want to suck the joy out of a good cookout by marrying your delicious cheeseburgers with harmful wires, right? So to be safe, it might just be time to toss your beloved grill brush in favor of something a little more secure—and less bristly. Besides, who doesn’t love a good BBQ upgrade?