In 2018, a Michigan woman named Linda Pelham bit into a hot dog and began a six-month ordeal. She choked, requiring the Heimlich maneuver and a visit to the emergency room, where her searing throat pain continued. A check found nothing, so a CT scan was scheduled, but another emergency room visit ended up being necessary first, when Pelham found herself unable to swallow.
X-rays and more scanning and scoping led nowhere, and she ended up on steroids for six months just in order to breathe properly. Eventually, additional X-rays led to the culprit being found — a single bristle from a wire brush used to clean the grill. It had lodged near her jugular and carotid arteries and required a complex, risky, invasive surgery to remove.
After a successful operation, Pelham’s husband swiped a magnet above their grill, and 30 to 40 more bristles emerged, each with the potential to do exactly what the one in Pelham’s hot dog did.
Everyone with a non-disgusting grill is wielding a lethal weapon.
The bristles from wire brushes suck, and Pelham is far from the only person to accidentally ingest one. A 2016 paper in the journal Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery calculated a likely 1,698 ER visits due to ingesting bristles in the 12 preceding years. While it’s not a staggering number (140 or so per year, while bathroom accidents cause close to a quarter of a million), it’s a shit reason to have a bad time.
In 2012, doctors in Rhode Island realized they had had six patients in 18 months who needed bristles surgically removed and had consumed meat cooked on a grill that was cleaned with a wire brush immediately prior to cooking. In two of them, the bristle ended up perforating the patient’s small intestine, while in one, it perforated through the stomach and into the liver, and was surrounded by a large hepatic abscess.
But spring is springing! The sun exists again, and surely even the most ardent anti-grillers must find themselves, after the fucking year we’ve had, at least slightly warming (heyo) to the idea of cooking and eating outside, simply because it’s something to goddamned do. It’s a very slight change of scenery, and a slight variation from the six meals you’ve cooked on rotation and the same three takeout orders you’re utterly sick of. There are going to be some incredibly early cookouts this year, BBQ sauce flying everywhere from the uncontrollable shudders of freezing but overexcited grill chefs burning the shit out of everything.
Just watch out when cleaning the grill before use if you’re one of them, because those little tiny shards of metal can do all sorts of wacky stuff. A 2019 paper in the American Journal of Case Reports looked at three patients who had accidentally had bristly burgers and found bowel perforations, fistulas and abdominal issues. The same year, a snappily-titled paper in SAGE Open Medical Case Reports, “Wire Bristle Foreign Body: Never in the Same Place Twice,” revealed just how hard the fucking things are to find once they’re in the body — anything less than a CT scan and you’ll likely get a false negative. Even if you spot one, they’re so little, and so easy to miss, that multiple imaging techniques have been found to be necessary — it’s a complicated thing, getting a bristle out of a person.
Better to just… not ingest them in the first place? David Chang, lead author of the Otolaryngology paper, advises examining the brush before using it and discarding it if any bristles are loose, inspecting your grill before cooking and inspecting food before eating it. Vigilant grilling — vigrillance, if you want to be cute about it in a way that doesn’t really work out loud — is the future.
Alternatively, there are other ways to clean a grill without the risk of inadvertently getting a fistula. Nylon-bristled brushes, for instance, or liquid grill cleaners. You can also ball up a bunch of tin foil, or use vinegar or cut an onion in half and wipe it down with that like a proper, proper oddball. They might take a bit longer than the ol’ grill brush, but they’ll let you concentrate on what cooking outdoors is really about: Being cold, getting drunk and giving yourself diarrhea.