It’s summer in Australia and barbecues everywhere are being fired up. There’s always a joke about what’s inside a meat sausage – sometimes euphemistically called a ‘mystery bag’. But even though we’re prepared to take our chances on the meat content, we don’t expect a sausage or burger to contain a sharp piece of wire.
One product hazard that hasn’t had much publicity in Australia is wire BBQ cleaning brushes. They can lose bristles which stay on the hotplate, then slip inside food as it’s being cooked.
In 2017 one unlucky man visited a Coffs Harbour emergency department three times with a vague abdominal pain that became extremely severe when he tried to eat something. It wasn’t until the man’s fourth ER visit that he was sent for a CT scan. The scan showed the metal barbecue brush bristle protruding from his small intestine into his pancreas. This was the first case of a wire in the pancreas ever reported in the world, according to Dr Rafael Gaszynski, the general surgery trainee who found the wayward bristle.
Dr Gaszynski described the whole story in a Royal Australasian College of Surgeons podcast. He also said that one study revealed all injuries had happened with brushes >2 years old.
I checked with the Victorian and Queensland injury surveillance units, but there was no data showing BBQ brush bristles. However, these units only cover a limited number of hospitals and data overseas shows there’s cause for concern.
United States experience
A study published in 2016 in the journal Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery showed an estimated 1,700 Americans went to an ER between 2002 and 2014 after ingesting wire bristled in barbecued food. The report said one out of four people with injuries was serious enough to require hospital admission.
In a 2019 report from University of Michigan, a single hotdog bite landed Linda Pelham in the hospital unable to breathe, speak or swallow. After six months of agony, Michigan Medicine doctors discovered a wire grill brush bristle stuck in her throat.
When we found out that there was a wire in my throat, my husband swiped a magnet over our grill and picked up an additional 30-40 wire bristles, previously unseen by the naked eye – it was alarming.Linda Pelham, University of Michigan Health Blog
Another report in 2018 cites a Connecticut woman requiring three surgeries to remove wire that had impaled her tongue.
Three other cases were analysed in the American Journal of Case Reports in 2019.
Canadian barbecue brush standard
In response to a significant number of injuries, a national standard of Canada was published specifically addressing this hazard. CSA Z630 Barbecue grill brushes includes specifications for bristle strength and durability. It also includes consumer warnings and instructions.
A preview of the Canadian standard is available to download. CSA also has free access to the entire standard if you register.
Millions of Canadians enjoy using their barbecues, especially during the warm summer months. Through repeated use, the metal bristle brushes that many people use to clean their barbecue grills can lose their bristles. If accidentally ingested, these metal bristles can cause serious health problems.
To minimize the risk of issues with your metal bristle barbecue brush, you should:
- regularly inspect your brush for signs of damage
- inspect grills and barbecued food for loose metal bristles
- regularly replace your brush to help avoid problems associated with wear, and
- stop using your brush if bristles come loose or stick to the grill.
Are barbecue brushes safe in Australia?
Can we all entertain in summer with confidence? Do we and our guests need to be wary of food coming off the barbecue? If it’s happened elsewhere, it’s likely to be a risk in Australia. I don’t think we can know if brushes sold in Australia generally meet any voluntary safety standards.
The Canadian standard is one that provides a clear method to test and demonstrate safety.
I checked a couple of brushes available in local stores. I had no way of checking the bristle strength or durability, but I did note there was no instructions or warning to check the brush as it gets older. Compliance with CSA Z630 would have required such consumer information.
To me, this is a good example of how a General Safety Provision could make a difference. It’s a recognised hazard and a safety standard is available as a benchmark. A general requirement in the Australian Consumer Law to make goods safe before going onto the market would oblige all manufacturers, importers and retailers to ensure wire barbecue brush compliance.
A number of non-bristled barbecue cleaning brushes are available. US and Canadian colleagues report having switched to these for their own outdoor cooking.
Action to be taken
- The federal government could progress its review of ACL product safety provisions, last discussed publicly in 2019. I wrote in support of a General Safety Provision at that time
- The ACCC could include advice for consumers and suppliers on the known hazard on its Product Safety Australia website
- Anyone selling wire barbecue brushes could determine compliance with the safety standard before putting them onto the market; at the least include a warning with the product to regularly check for loose bristles
- Barbecue owners and users can seek out a non-bristle brush; or ask retailers if a wire brush meets the safety standard before purchase; and check wire brushes and hotplates for any signs of loose bristles