TUESDAY, April 3, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Several Rhode Island residents had a brush with the emergency room because of sharp wire bristles that made their way from barbecue grills into their digestive tracts.
The wire bristles, which came from the metallic brushes used to clean grills, apparently ended up in barbecued beef or chicken that the patients ate, a new report said. From there, the bristles went to their throats and stomachs and caused serious medical issues.
Emergency physicians elsewhere said they'd never seen this happen. So might the nation's smallest state be the home to its biggest problem with renegade grill-cleaner bristles? Report lead author Dr. David Grand isn't so sure.
"Certainly, we all love to grill, though I can't say for certain that Rhode Islanders grill anymore than other Americans. More likely, once we became aware of this problem we began looking for it, and if we don't specifically look for this we will not find it," said Grand, a radiologist at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence.
Within an 18-month period from 2009 to 2010, six patients appeared at the hospital with symptoms of abdominal pain or painful swallowing. The patients -- aged 11 to 75 and including five females -- didn't know the cause, although they'd all eaten grilled meats within the last two to 24 hours.
Scans or x-rays revealed metallic bristles in their necks or lower in their digestive systems. The bristles caused serious problems in some cases; for instance, a bristle perforated the stomach and liver of one patient who had to stay in the hospital for six days.
"Treatment for these patients involves removal of the wire," Grand said. "If the wire is lodged in the mouth or throat, this may be accomplished by an ear, nose and throat doctor or gastroenterologist who can use a small scope to find and remove the wire. If, however, the wire has perforated the intestine at the time of presentation, surgery with removal of the affected bowel segment will usually be required."
In each case, the patients had eaten food grilled on a barbecue that had been cleaned just before cooking. It seems that the bristles fell off the brushes, landed on the grill and ended up in the food. "All of the patients in our [group] ate meat -- either beef or chicken," Grand said. "It is unclear if they simply were not grilling their vegetables, weren't eating vegetables or if the bristles don't stick as easily to vegetables placed on the grill."
Emergency physicians said they're familiar with a variety of ingested foreign objects in patients, but not this particular one. Toothpicks may be the closest thing, said Dr. Michael Lanigan, an attending physician in emergency medicine at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in New York City. Sharp objects, he said, can cause perforations anywhere in the digestive tract.
What should you do to prevent bristles from getting into your food when you grill?
"When my pop had a charcoal grill, he'd do a good rinse to get off the residue," Lanigan said. You can rinse the cooking grates in the sink or with a hose "and make sure you didn't leave anything on there," he said.
Grand, the report author, has his own cleaning method. "Anecdotally, although I have no scientific proof that this works, I now wipe my grill with a wet paper towel after using a brush, hoping to remove any dislodged bristles," said Grand.
The report appears online and in the April print issue of the American Journal of Roentgenology.
For more about grill safety, see the U.S. National Fire Protection Association.