Household Hazards

How everyday products make us sick.

Slip an Extra Wire Bristle on the Barbie

Hazard on the Grill

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) welcomed the summer season with a sobering warning about the potential hazards of grill-cleaning brushes. All-in-all they tolled 6 cases of adults who went to emergency departments either because of severe pain swallowing or terrible abdominal pain.

As the CDC documents (http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6126a4.htm), all of the cases suffered from what medical science calls a “foreign body,” that is, something that is somewhere it shouldn’t be, in these particular cases lodged in either the neck or intestines. The foreign bodies in question were thin metallic objects that had to be removed through various fiber-optic techniques, including abdominal surgery in two cases. They turned out to be wire bristles dislodged from grill cleaning brushes. Questioning revealed a similar pattern, epitomized by a 50 year old man whose abdominal pain began shortly after eating a steak at backyard barbeque.

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The CDC editorial comment accompanying this report was mainly intended to raise awareness among emergency room physicians so that they consider wire bristle ingestion as a cause of unexplained pain. The editorial cautions that if a CT scan is performed to do so without using oral contrast medium, as this can obscure visualization of an imbedded wire. The CDC editorial also mentions that the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is looking into the possibility of product defect.

Given the track record of the CPSC, we may have to wait a long time for any real follow-up from that quarter. Maybe the least the CPSC could do in the meantime is update previous bad advice. The last pronouncement from them that I could find is a May 2011 press release, Fire It Up Safely, that seems, if anything, to promote the problem: “Is the grill clean? Regularly cleaning the grill, as described in the owner's manual…will reduce the risk of flare-ups and grease fires” (http://www.cpsc.gov/CPSCPUB/PREREL/prhtml11/11228.html). To date there have been no recalls of such brushes, voluntary or otherwise.

There may be those that caricature this kind of hazard warning as going over the top, along the lines of “Can’t we even barbeque any way we want in our own backyards anymore?” Even a National Public Radio game show Wait Wait D’ont Tell Me took this tack recently in regard to a U.K. governmental warning over the potential dangers of office stapler use (http://www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=158598911&m=158598898). But the truth of the matter is that the problem of grill wire bristle injury appears to be common (additional medical reports have appeared even since the July CDC announcement), serious, under-reported, and, should the CPSC ever get its act together, likely preventable.

Paul D. Blanc, M.D., M.S.P.H., is Professor of Medicine and Endowed Chair in Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the University of California San Francisco.

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