Once the weather gets warm, the air is filled with the smell of barbecued foods in suburban backyards everywhere. A hearty cookout is practically a rite of passage on summer evenings. And whatever you prefer to grill, be it burgers, chicken, shrimp, vegetables, or anything else on the barbecue, just make sure you are not serving a side of grill brush wires with it.
That's right, it turns out that some of us are actually ingesting the bristle wires from the brushes that we use for cleaning grill grates. According to new information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been numerous hospital visits for both adults and children with injuries from swallowing these wires along with food.1 The report documented 12 cases of internal injuries due to wire ingestion of this kind (many more are undocumented). In all of the cases, some form of pain began shortly after eating barbecued food…and each patient said a wire grill brush was used to clean the grill prior to cooking.
The wire bristles were responsible for a number of different types of injuries. Some were found to have perforated tissue in the throat, producing pain upon swallowing and necessitating an emergency room visit. Others were even more acute, such as serious damage taking place within the gastrointestinal tract. In these cases, emergency surgery was required to repair the organs and prevent peritonitis, an inflammation of the abdomen caused by leaking blood or fluids.2 Making matters worse, not all hospital personnel think to check for bristle-related injuries so the initial diagnosis may go in a different direction. Even if doctors order a CT scan of the abdominal region to determine the source of the pain, it may be difficult to see the wire bits in typical imaging.
In other words, you might want to play it safe and avoid cleaning your grill with this sort of brush to eliminate a small but potentially very dangerous hazard. At the very least, you might want to wipe your grill down with a damp paper towel after wire brushing it. Or consider alternative methods to get those grill grates clean. For instance, you can use a scouring pad such as Brillo or even a wad of aluminum foil to scrape debris off of your grill.3 Another option is to burn any residue away by using the heat of the barbecue itself. This can be done at your convenience, since it doesn't require any work on your part except turning up the gas, but it does use gas that could otherwise be saved for cooking. Other people swear by the cleansing power of natural products like onions. To try this, cut an onion in half and use the cut side to rub any remaining grease off the still-warm grates.
Or, you could try to cut out (or at least cut down substantially on) your grilling. Research has proven that cooking meats -- and that means beef, chicken, pork, and even fish -- at very high temperatures can cause the formation of heterocyclic amines (HCAs).4 The longer you cook the meat and the more well done you make it, the greater the accumulation of HCAs. And HCAs have been linked to cancer in numerous studies.
If you refuse to give up on your summer barbecuing, at least try to counteract these carcinogens you are consuming by marinating your meat thoroughly before grilling. Research conducted at Kansas State University in 2008 found that marinating meat sharply reduces the level of HCAs.5 Every type of marinade used in the study lowered the amount of HCAs found in the food, with the reduction ranging from 57 percent to an amazing 88 percent. The numbers likely varied based on the herbs used and therefore the levels of antioxidants present. So, if you do feel the need to grill your food on occasion, at least counteract those carcinogens with a healthy dose of herbal marinade.
What do you do if you get invited to a barbecue you can't pass up, where you will have no control over the preparation of the meat? Just make sure you include lots of antioxidants in your diet and/or supplementation routine. Although at that point, you may be back to square one in needing to check your hamburger for bits of wire bristles just in case.
1 Kearney, Christine. "People Are Ingesting Grill Brush Wires Says CDC." Medical News Today. 5 July 2012. Accessed 17 July 2012. <http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/247504.php>.
2 "GI Perforations." EndoNurse. 30 March 2007. Accessed 19 July 2012. <http://www.endonurse.com/articles/2007/03/gi-perforations.aspx>.
3 Dolce, Anne. "How to Clean Your Grill Without a Grill Brush." The Daily Meal. 14 June 2012. Accessed 19 July 2012. <http://www.thedailymeal.com/how-clean-your-grill-without-grill-brush>.
4 "Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk." National Cancer Institute. 15 October 2010. Accessed 19 July 2012. <http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/cooked-meats>.
5 "Marinating Meats Prior to Grilling May Decrease Cancer-Forming Compounds." Institute of Food Technologists. 29 July 2008. Accessed 19 July 2012. <http://www.ift.org/newsroom/news-releases/2008/july/29/marinating-meats-before-grilling-may-decrease-cancer-forming-compounds.aspx>.