A surgeon who has had to treat patients injured after swallowing  wire bristles from a barbecue brush says Health Canada should be moving more quickly to take the brushes off the market.

"They could be moving a little quicker," said Guelph General Hospital surgeon Dr. Leigh Bishop. "I'm not sure if they're taking it as serious as they could be. What will it take — a death? Maybe then they'll move a little faster."

The number of incidents related to wire-bristle barbecue brushes reported to Health Canada more than doubled over the summer, but the regulator is still weighing what to do about the problem.

A Health Canada risk-assessment report completed in August found the number of reported incidents of bristles coming off a grill cleaning brush has climbed to 40. The majority of those incidents involved an injury related to ingesting the bristle.

wooden grill cleaner

The risk report analyzed alternative grill cleaning products such as brushes with nylon or 'natural fibre' bristles, wood scrapers and abrasive scrubbing blocks. It concluded those options 'are likely safer' than metal wire-bristle brushes. (CBC/Vera-Lynn Kubinec)

More than half of the reports — 24 of them — were received in July 2017, when there were numerous media reports about metal bristles that can come off the brushes and potentially cause injury if ingested in food.

The incident reports were received as far back as 2004 and as recently as July 24, 2017, said the risk report, provided to CBC News by Health Canada.

The risk report does not recommend any specific regulatory action, such as product recalls or prohibiting sales of any brushes. Instead, it refers the issue to Health Canada's Risk Management Bureau for further review.

The length of time for that will depend on the risk-management strategies that are ultimately selected, a Health Canada spokesperson said.

Dr. Bishop said even with the spike in reporting this year, there are likely many cases that go unreported. He noted he had not reported the five cases that he treated between about 2010 to 2016.

"Both patients and physicians need to do more reporting to Health Canada on this. And if that were the case, the numbers would probably go up," he said.

Bishop said in his most recent case, a patient went to the hospital's emergency department after being ill for a few days. The patient had ingested a wire bristle that travelled all the way through the stomach, and "just short of getting to the colon, it perforated the small bowel," Bishop said.

BBQ brush bowel

A wire bristle that travelled all the way through stomach, and perforated a patient's small bowel. (Submitted by Dr. Leigh Bishop)

He urges Health Canada to ban sales of wire bristle brushes.

"There are safer options out there and pulling this product off the market would probably be the safest thing to do," he said. "It's different if there are no alternatives, but there are alternatives out there."

The risk report analyzed alternative grill-cleaning products, including brushes with nylon or "natural fibre" bristles, wood scrapers and abrasive scrubbing blocks. It concluded those options "are likely safer" than metal wire-bristle brushes.

28 cases involved injury

In 28 of the 40 reported cases, the person suffered injury.

The report provides insight into the parts of the body where the ingested bristles were found: 16 were found in the mouth, 15 in the throat, one in the esophagus and one in the intestine.

In six of the 40 reported cases, the bristle was detected before it went into the mouth. And in one case, a person simply reported "general concern of the issue," the report said.

Most of the 40 incidents involved adults but there were six cases involving a child.

The report also describes some of the incident reports Health Canada received, such as one from an importer who said "customer advised that three rows of bristles fell off while in use."

In another example, a consumer described an experience with a grill brush: "I used the product and am only writing this because I got the thin wire in my steak and luckily I chewed and caught it before it was swallowed, but many others are not so lucky," the report quotes the customer as saying.

"This product is made of plastic, the heat of the sun and BBQ wears down the plastic and the wires get loose.… I saw my church even used this metal bristle on their BBQ."

Another importer wrote, "Customer advised that a bristle from the BBQ brush got caught in his throat and he had to have it surgically removed."

No pattern to brands, injuries

The report analyzed different brands of grill brushes available on the market and found "there is no noticeable pattern relating the brand of barbecue brush and the severity of injury."

"It is the opinion of the Risk Assessment Division that the particular brand of the brush from which the bristle originated would likely have negligible influence on the ensuing potential incident," the report said.

The various brand names of the brushes were redacted in the copy of the report provided by Health Canada to CBC News.

The report also includes information on the in-house laboratory testing performed by two companies that sell the brushes.  

One of the tests focused on mechanically pulling a full tuft of metal bristles from a brush, the report said, but there was no evidence of any pull-testing being conducted on individual wire bristles.

The report also found that pull tests may not be exerting enough force to replicate human use.

"The average one-handed push/pull strength capacity for adults is greater than the reported pull-out force to remove a full tuft of metal bristles," the report said.

The majority of Canadians — children and adults — are likely exposed to food prepared on a barbecue grill, the report concludes, and during the summer that could happen more than four times a month.

Health Canada's spokesperson said the regulator has taken steps to promote awareness of the grill-brush hazard amongst industry and the public.

On mobile? Click here to read Health Canada's risk assessment.

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