It’s April, and the outdoor grilling season — for those of us who don’t enjoy Sun Belt winters — is about to commence.
Nothing like the warm sun (finally), a hot grill and some cold beverages to usher in the summertime. It’s a ritual that millions of Americans eagerly, something to anticipate during the dreary months of February and March.
There is one chore that must be done before whatever meat products you enjoy are sizzling on the grill, however, and it’s one nobody anticipates with anything other than dread: Cleaning that grilling surface, which likely has some strange biological growths attached to it after months of hibernation.
But that’s no big deal, right? Grab a wire brush, put in a couple minutes of scraping and brushing, and you’re good to go.
Not so fast.
Of all the encyclopedic catalog of alleged threats to human health from cooking over an open flame, or even the impact of choosing red meat versus poultry, a recent study uncovered a risk I’ve never before considered.
According to a report in the latest issue of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery, which I eagerly thumb through each month, hundreds of people who were innocently grilling their dinnertime entrées one minute ended up in hospital emergency rooms later that day.
Did they develop an allergic reaction to something they ate? Not at all.
Overeat so outrageously they needed medical attention? Nothing like that.
Succumb to a sudden onset of veganism that prompted them to go get their stomachs pumped?
No, what these patients encountered was the most unlikely hazard of the grilling season — and one that isn’t restricted to meat-eaters, by the way — and that is the ingestion of wire brush bristles.
Over the tongue, past the gums
Indeed, swallowing anything that consists of sharp strands of metal is most definitely contraindicated, as physicians would unanimously concur.
But is it a real risk? Here’s the story.
A Science Daily article explained that a group of doctors analyzed the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s reports, as well as the database maintained at SaferProducts.gov. What they found were data indicating that 1,698 Americans were rushed to hospitals and emergency rooms between 2002 and 2014 following the accidental “ingestion” of pieces of wire, which obviously broke off from the brushes used to clean the cooking surfaces on people’s outdoor grills.
According to the study, the most common location of injury was the oral cavity and the oropharynx, ie, the throat and tonsils. However, some especially unfortunate people managed to swallow the bristles, which ended up as far down in the intestinal tract as the stomach and the lower abdominal region.
As I was skimming through the study, I must be honest: I felt a queasy feeling in my throat, knowing that the grill brush I use isn’t exactly brand new out of the box.
The research team, which was headed up by Dr. C.W. David Chang, an Associate Professor of Clinical Otolaryngology at the University of Missouri Medical School, warned that the danger of accidentally consuming fragments of wire along with your cheeseburger is “under-reported and thus underappreciated.”
Whoa, doc. Wait a second. Under-reported? Probably, although does anyone actually swallow a piece of metal wire, and then just go about their business like nothing happened?
But under-appreciated? Not any more. In fact, even before encountering this study, I would say that I was fully appreciative of the threat that eating a piece of sharpened wire bristle would have on my well-being.
And next time I clean off my grill, I’m going to take a extra few seconds to inspect the cooking grate, and I mean inspect. Heck, I might even be tempted to wipe it down with a clean cloth before firing up the grill.
The study’s authors encourage consumers to “exercise caution when cleaning grills,” and they recommend inspecting the grates prior to cooking.
That’s an order, mister!
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator