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Careful While Grilling This Summer: Wire Brush Bristles Ending Up Stuck In Intestines

Centers for Disease Control

Local doctors are concerned about cases of metal bristles getting stuck in people’s intestines. The University Health System and the Methodist Hospital have teamed up to study the strange but growing problem.

The bristles come from those wire brushes used to clean the barbecue grill, and people sometimes ingest the tiny wires without knowing it.

Johnny Littrell of Floresville said it happened to him and the pain felt like an ice pick sticking into his abdomen.

"They did a CAT scan and said I had a piece of bone in my intestines," he said.

After surgery to remove the bone, doctors were surprised to learn it was actually a wire bristle.

Dr. Salvador Sordo, at the UT Health Science Center-San Antonio, said it happens just a few times a year, but it’s enough to warrant a public education campaign - and education of doctors so they will know what to look for if a patient presents with stomach pains.

"At this point, our investigations have not indicated a specific brand of brush. However, we recommend that if people in fact use a grill-cleaning brush that has metallic bristles, they use another type of tool, maybe a crumbled ball of aluminum foil or some steel wool, or even half an onion, just to kind of clean the top of the grates off," Sordo said. 

Sordo said rubbing the onion on the grill may pick up hidden pieces of wire that could get imbedded into meat cooked on the grill.

Littrell has learned to look more closely at his grilling equipment.

"I mean, I'm just like everybody else. The brush is old and worn out, and I pulled on some of the bristles and they did come loose," Littrell said. 

Sordo said the Health Science Center and Methodist Hospital are working to increase public awareness of the problem. He said unchecked, a perforated intestine could cause high fever and severe pain that comes and goes. If that happens, it should be checked by a doctor. 

Eileen Pace is a veteran radio and print journalist with a long history of investigative and feature reporting in San Antonio and Houston, earning more than 50 awards for investigative reporting, documentaries, long-form series, features, sports stories, outstanding anchoring and best use of sound.