So Here's a Terrifying New Anxiety for Backyard Grilling Season

With backyard grilling season upon us, a new study issues a warning about a potential health hazard related to cooking on a grill. Tetra Images/Getty Images

Cholesterol? Fat? Old news. Carbonized char? Pshaw. Science has given us another reason to fear the beloved grilled hamburger: oral injury caused by ingesting wire-bristle grill brushes.

Just in time to cast a pall over spring and summer backyard grilling season, scientists examined 12 years of data in the Consumer Product Safety Commission's National Electronic Injury Surveillance System and, a database of consumer-reported injuries.

The study, published in the March 2016 edition of the journal Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery, found that between 2002 and 2014, an estimated 1,698 emergency room visits were caused by people ingesting the wires from bristle brushes. The authors didn't include cases presenting at urgent-care facilities.

The bristles of wire brushes can break off and get lodged in grilled food, causing injury.
Isaac Wedin/Flickr

Oral injuries were most common, with people scratching or cutting the inside of the mouth and throat as well as the tonsils, while abdominal issues due to swallowing were less common. Hamburgers, the most popular grilled food in the U.S., are also most likely to pick up bristles due to their texture. 

"The issue is likely under reported and thus underappreciated," says study lead author, C.W. David Chang, in a press release accompanying the publication.

While it's no razor blade in an apple, a piece of metal bristle that breaks off from a brush, sticks to a grill and gets transferred to food can cause serious injuries. For perspective, though, we're talking three people per state, per year, assuming an average applies across the board. 

The study's authors recommend checking brushes before use for loose bristles, and inspecting a grill for any remnants of the last use. Aside from turning a seemingly harmless cookout into another source of fear (thanks, science!), the authors say they hope to raise awareness both in those operating the grill and those physicians who might not otherwise realize what the cause of injury is.

"Because of the uncommon nature of wire bristle injuries, people may not be as mindful about the dangers and implications," says Chang. "Awareness among emergency department physicians, radiologists, and otolaryngologists is particularly important so that appropriate tests and examinations can be conducted."

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