Health Canada decides against banning wire-bristle BBQ brushes

Health Canada has decided against banning the sale of wire-bristle barbecue brushes, and is instead leaving brush safety mostly in the hands of industry and grillers, according to its latest risk assessment report.  

The agency looked into what it should do after receiving more than two-dozen reports since 2004 of people getting injured after ingesting bristles that had come loose from barbecue brushes.

How wire bristles can easily fall off a BBQ brush0:18

“I’m very frustrated with their decision,” said Beverly Smith, a nurse in Red Deer, Alta., who suffered a perforated bowel in October after accidentally ingesting a two-centimetre-long metal wire that came off her grill brush.

She said Health Canada ought to ban sales of wire-bristle brushes.

“They have to come off the shelf,” Smith said. “It’s not safe. It’s hurting people.”

Smith suspects the metal wire she ate was stuck in a burger.

“A few days later, I started getting stomach pain, which I thought was just upset stomach or the flu,” she said. “So I kept trying to deal with it myself.”

But the pain didn’t go away, so she went to a walk-in clinic.

The X-rays didn’t show anything. But she knew something was wrong and decided to go to the emergency room that night. 

“I got worse and worse … and the next morning I had emergency surgery,” she said.

“It was scary.”

Bev Smith wire bristle

Smith is still recovering after swallowing this metal wire that fell off her grill brush. (Beverly Smith)

She missed eight weeks of work and is still recovering from the surgery that removed a 20-centimetre section of her bowel.

“I’m devastated, like I won’t use my barbecue anymore. I won’t use a barbecue brush anymore. I will tell everybody I can, not to use them,” Smith said. “This can happen to anybody.”

Dr. Martin Owen, the family physician who treated Smith at the walk-in clinic, says swallowing a bristle can be a matter of life or death, and is “absolutely something that needs to be operated on in a very timely fashion, within hours.”

He said he wants Health Canada to “step up” and get wire-bristle brushes off the market entirely. 

“I would like to see all of these brushes off the shelves so that no other Canadians get hurt by these products the way my patient did,” he said.

Voluntary measures

The two-page report by Health Canada’s risk management bureau — dated Aug. 22, and obtained by CBC News this week — acknowledges that “swallowing a wire bristle constitutes a potentially severe or life-threatening circumstance,” but it doesn’t recommend a ban on sales or a recall of brushes, which many physicians have called for.

It says voluntary recalls aren’t practical for several reasons, including the fact there’s no criteria for determining which brushes pose the greatest risk. It also says mandatory product warnings likely wouldn’t reduce the risk.

Instead, the report recommends asking industry to “take steps to reduce the risk of bristles detaching.” And for Health Canada to update its website with grill brush safety information and to share safety tips on social media.

“Health Canada is always monitoring the situation and if there is any new information that comes to light, the agency will review,” Health Canada spokesperson André Gagnon told CBC News.

Smith grill brush

Smith says she’s frustrated Health Canada decided not to ban the sale of wire-bristle grill brushes, like the one she used. (Colin Hall/CBC)

The company that distributes the brush that Smith bought says people need to take proper care of grill brushes.

Mike Lecouffe, a service manager at S.R. Potten Entreprises in Lachine, Que., told CBC the brushes are imported from overseas and should be replaced every three months.  

“It does have a lot to do with how the brushes are looked after or how often they are changed,” Lecouffe said.

“If a barbecue brush is left outside in the snow, and it rains, or the sun is on it, if they’re not put under a cover, that could be a factor that could contribute to why a bristle might fall out.”

Lecouffe advises people to inspect their brush and grill after every use and look for any kind of crack or wear in wood-handle brushes.

Health Canada has received 40 reports involving bristles coming off grill brushes since 2004, including 28 cases in which someone was injured.

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