Beware the Bristles! Ongoing Study Points to Surprising Barbecue Danger

June 27, 2013

With the summer months upon us, many families are firing up the backyard grill. But how they clean that grill between uses could mean the difference between a savory meal and a trip to the hospital.

The culprit? In the case of a few local patients, doctors found they had swallowed metal bristles — broken or dislodged from brushes used to clean outdoor grills. Those bristles can remain on the grill surface until they stick to food.

“It was like somebody stuck an ice pick in me,” said Johnnie Littrell, 66, a Floresville construction manager. Littrell was about to be wheeled in for a colonoscopy when he felt a sharp pain in his right side. The pain went away after a while but recurred over the next few days.

At first, doctors thought a sliver of chicken bone had pierced his intestine after reviewing the results of a CT scan. But the surgeon who removed it, Dr. Russell Woodard with General Surgical Associates at Methodist Hospital, instead found a wire bristle.

At a meeting last year of the J. Bradley Aust Surgical Society, a professional organization of surgeons named for the founding chairman of surgery at the University of Texas Health Science Center, Woodard described a few similar cases that members of his group had seen.

The next day, when another patient presented to University Hospital with a grill brush bristle perforation of the small intestine, the surgeons were able to promptly make the diagnosis because of what they had learned the previous day.

Dr. Salvador Sordo, a surgical research resident with the UT Health Science Center, has been working collaboratively with surgeons from both University Health System and Methodist Healthcare System to find and interview the patients, and try to identify risk factors and potential ways to prevent similar injuries in the future.

"At this point it is not clear what is causing the increase in the presentation of this problem,” Sordo said. “However, we want to increase community awareness of the possibility of ingesting metallic bristles dislodged from grill cleaning brushes, and encourage close inspection of the grill grates prior to cooking this upcoming grilling season. In addition, emergency room personnel and surgeons need to be more aware of this potential etiology for abdominal pain in order to promptly diagnose and treat these patients."

While the study is ongoing, Sordo recommends barbecue chefs consider alternate ways to clean the grill, using various scraping tools available or a piece of steel wool or a crumpled ball of aluminum foil. If you do use a brush, replace it annually. Wipe the grill after each brushing with a scraping tool, aluminum foil or steel wool — and then do a close inspection of the grill for broken bristles.

That’s a lesson that Littrell has taken to heart. “I still brush the grill. But the brush has a brush side, and on the other end it has a metal scraper. So after I brush, I use that scraper to knock everything else off. Then I get down there and look. And I have found more pieces of wire on the grill from just doing that procedure.”

Note to news media: To interview Dr. Sordo, contact Leni Kirkman or Don Finley at UHS. To interview Dr. Woodard, contact JoAnn King at Methodist. Mr. Littrell is also available for interviews and can be reached through both health systems.