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Pediatric ER doc shares the 1 grilling tool she'd never use

This tool can cause life-threatening injuries and you might not even know for a few days that you're injured, Dr. Meghan Martin says.

Wire grill brushes seem like an effective way to clean off charred grime and grease before barbecuing, but they may do more harm than good. Some experts consider wire brushes so risky that they recommend throwing them out immediately. Why?

Even when these brushes are used correctly, the wire bristles can break off and become stuck to the grill grates and surfaces, where they can then end up in food. When eaten, the wire bristles can cause a range of injuries and even life-threatening complications.

As summer and outdoor-grilling season approaches, one doctor warns about the dangers of this common barbecue accessory.

Dr. Meghan Martin, a pediatric emergency medicine physician at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, shared her story of treating one of these wire grill brush injuries in a now-viral TikTok video.

Martin, who goes by the username @Beachgem10, posted the video in February and it has garnered over 40 million views so far. “One of my most interesting cases has a lesson that could save your life," she wrote in the caption.

Several years ago, a 4-year-old boy came into the emergency room complaining of pain, Martin tells The boy had been outside with his family when he suddenly grabbed his ear and started crying out. "Initially his parents thought he had been stung by a bee in the ear," says Martin.

The boy's ear and throat exams were normal, she says, so he was sent home with ibuprofen and numbing ear drops. Over the next few days, Martin says the boy saw his pediatrician and an ear, nose and throat specialist, whose exams were also normal.

When the pain still hadn't subsided a few days later, the boy's family took him back to the hospital, says Martin. Doctors did a CT scan without contrast of his mastoid area next to his ear and couldn't find anything, she says, so he was sent back home.

About 10 days after his initial visit, the boy was back in the ER, says Martin, who saw the patient for the first time on this third trip. "At this point, he didn't want to eat or drink anything and started to have some fevers," says Martin, adding that he also developed discomfort and swelling on the right side of his throat.

"We did every test we could think of," says Martin, which included a CT scan using contrast of the boy's entire neck. Contrast is a substance that's given orally or by IV, which allows the organ or tissues being examined to seen more clearly on a scan, per Johns Hopkins. The CT scan finally gave doctors an answer.

"It was a 2-centimeter metal wire that was lodged in the tonsil tissue," says Martin, adding that the wire was so deep it was not visible during his throat exam.

"At that point he'd started to develop a small infection around it, which is the body's response to that foreign object, but we were able to get it out and he had a complete recovery," says Martin.

Later on, Martin says the doctors learned that the boy's symptoms began while he was eating at a barbecue. The 2-centimeter metal wire was a bristle from a wire barbecue brush, which broke off and ended up in a hamburger.

It’s not the first time Martin has treated a child who ate a wire grill brush bristle, she says, and these injuries are likely much more common — among both children and adults — than people realize.

In a similar story published by in 2017, a 4-year-old boy in Canada landed in the emergency room after choking and screaming in pain at a barbecue, where doctors surgically removed two metal grill brush fibers lodged in the boy's esophagus.

An X-ray of 4-year-old Oliver Schenn (not the patient treated by Dr. Martin) shows the metal bristle lodged in his throat.
An X-ray of 4-year-old Oliver Schenn (not the patient treated by Dr. Martin) shows the metal bristle lodged in his throat.Courtesy Jenna Kuchik

According to a study published in 2016 journal Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, barbecue brushes caused an estimated 1,698 emergency room visits from 2002 to 2014, previously reported.

When barbecue brush injuries do occur, Martin says it is more common to see the bristles lodged in the mouth or throat — but they can end up anywhere in the gastrointestinal tract, including the stomach and intestines.

“I’ve actually seen two kids that had (the wires) in their abdomen, and one of them was quite sick,” says Martin.

In the intestines, the bristles can cause perforations or holes, says Martin, which allow the contents to leak out into the abdomen. Intestinal perforations are a medical emergency that can cause life-threatening complications like sepsis, she says, or death.

“Even just developing a (throat) abscess like the 4-year-old in our case, had it developed into the space where his airway and other important blood vessels are, it could be life-threatening, especially if it goes undetected,” she adds.

While a bristle lodged in the mouth or throat typically causes pain and discomfort immediately, says Martin, swallowing a metal wire may not cause symptoms for a few days. "It would be important to generally monitor for abdominal pain or vomiting," says Martin.

Wire grill brush injuries can happen to anyone as long as they're eating food off of a grill that's been cleaned by one, says Martin. That's why she never uses one to clean her own grill at home.

"If you have one of these metal wire grill brushes, I would advise getting rid of it and using one of the safer options," says Martin. Instead, she recommends non-wire grill brushes, sponges, scrapers, stones, or wipes to combat charred grime and grease. “Absolutely inspect your grill before you use it and make sure that there’s nothing on it that would be concerning."

Getting rid of your wire grill brush is "really just a small change we can make to avoid this risk completely," she adds.