OTTAWA – For 18 months, Prince Edward Islander Kevin Gallant had a nagging pain in his gut. But one night the pain became so severe that he told his wife to watch the kids while he drove himself to the hospital.
After a battery of tests, doctors finally figured out what had been ailing him: a loose barbecue brush bristle he’d mistakenly ingested was firmly lodged in his small intestine and was slowly piercing through the gut wall. He needed immediate surgery to have part of his intestine removed and, seven years later, has an eight-inch scar and the occasional shot of pain as a souvenir.
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“They said it was fortunate that they got that out of me because if it would have finished going through the intestinal wall, it would have just travelled through major organs until it pierced something that probably would have just killed you,” Gallant said in an interview.
Gallant is one of a growing number of Canadians forced to go to emergency rooms because they unknowingly ingested a barbecue brush bristle that got stuck to their grill during routine cleaning and then their food, according to new data from Health Canada.
Though the problem isn’t necessarily new, researchers found that the number of hospital visits due to errant bristles — though not major in the grand scheme of things — grew significantly in the years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic
In a data blog published last month, there were 38 reported cases of injuries related to barbecue brush bristle inhalation or ingestion between 2011 and 2022 in the Canadian Hospitals Injury Reporting and Prevention Program (CHIRPP) surveillance system.
In 14 of those cases, the injury was so bad the patient needed to be hospitalized.
But the data show that most of those injuries were reported in the past five years. Between 2011 and 2015, there was only one year in which there was over one ER visit because of a brush bristle incident (there were three in 2012).
Starting in 2016, that number grew slowly, peaking at eight in 2017 (or 4.8 of every 100,000 ER visits recorded in the CHIRPP) but hitting seven in 2019 and six in 2020.
Once ingested, the steel bristles can wreak havoc on the body.
“Once ingested, these thin, sharp wire bristles have perforated or embedded along the aerodigestive and gastrointestinal tract, including at sites such as the tongue, pharynx, small intestine/bowel, and colon,” reads a 2017 paper by Health Canada.
Reports by patients to doctors noted in Health Canada’s latest data blog tell a similar story.
“Eating BBQ food; metal bristle from BBQ brush stuck on food; bristle stuck in esophagus,” one patient told doctors, according to information recorded in CHIRPP and quoted by Health Canada.
“Eating barbecue pork, bristle from brush used to clean barbecue got lodged at base of tongue and adenoids,” another patient reportedly said.
Despite the jump in numbers in recent years, Health Canada admits that the true scope of the problem is unknown, and that this data is likely just the tip of the iceberg. Researchers also noted that injuries don’t just happen during the summer, but all year long.
“The actual number of individuals who have experienced injuries related to barbecue brush bristle ingestion/inhalation is unknown, as some might seek care at facilities other than emergency departments or might not seek care at all,” reads the blog.
Health Canada didn’t explain why the sudden increase in recorded incidents, but data show that a majority (26) of recorded hospital visits for bristle-related injuries were sustained by children under the age of 15.
In 2017, Health Canada launched an investigation into the safety of steel bristle barbecue brushes. Two years later, new “voluntary” standards for brushes were announced by the Standards Council of Canada to make them safer for users. That means that manufacturers are not obliged to abide by them to sell their products.
“We suggest that Canadians should regularly inspect their brush for signs of damage; inspect grills and barbecued food for loose metal bristles; replace metal bristle barbecue brushes every season and stop using their brush if metal bristles come loose, or stick to the grill,” Health Canada spokesperson André Gagnon said in an email.
But Gallant says he has scrapped using wire brushes altogether and highly encourages others to do the same.
“I don’t care what kind of guarantees you’re putting on your brush, I’m not even interested,” he said with a laugh.
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