After years of safety warnings and reports of injuries from wire-bristle brushes used to clean barbecue grills, Health Canada has begun a risk assessment that could potentially stop the sale of the brushes.
The risk assessment follows nine incident reports Health Canada has received since 2011 about different brands of barbecue brushes, CBC News has learned.
The problem is that sharp wire bristles can come off the brushes, become stuck in food cooked on the grills and cause injury when they're accidentally ingested.
Incident reports, along with increased awareness around the issue, prompted the risk assessment, which began in April and is expected to be finished by late summer, said Health Canada spokesperson Eric Morrissette.
"Health Canada will evaluate the results of the risk assessment, as well as all other relevant information, to determine what compliance action, if any, should be undertaken," Morrissette said by email.
"Recall of the product is one of several possible compliance actions."
Under the Canada Consumer Product Safety Act, Health Canada can take a range of enforcement or corrective measures if a product poses a danger to human health or safety, Morrissette said.
In this case, that could include recall, ordering stores to stop selling the brushes or seizing the products.
'Remove them from the market'
Kim Schellenberg, of Red Deer, Alta., was injured in 2014 after a painful experience swallowing a tiny wire bristle that got stuck in a piece of hamburger she ate. Before cooking the burgers, her husband had cleaned the grill with a wire-bristle brush.
Schellenberg said she endured two surgeries to her neck and throat area, and spent a week in hospital following hours in the operating room, yet doctors could not successfully find and remove the metal fragment.
"They determined that somewhere between the second CT scan and the time of the surgery, it had actually been in my throat [but] it had somehow kicked loose and had gone down my digestive tract," Schellenberg said.
Because there was no pain in her intestines, doctors concluded the bristle was eventually expelled in body waste, she said.
Schellenberg said "it's about time" that Health Canada undertakes a risk assessment.
She would like to see the metal brushes gone.
"My wish would be to remove them from the market," she said. "It's upsetting to see they're still being sold."
Specialist suspects incidents under-reported
Doctors who specialize in treating ear, nose and throat issues have been raising concerns for years about wire-bristle grill brushes.
"I think it's incredibly important that parents and [other] people are aware that this risk does exist," said Winnipeg pediatric otolaryngologist — or ear, nose and throat specialist — Jodi Jones, who treated a child who suffered a bristle injury.
"They can get lodged in there, so they can be hard to see just with examination, either with the naked eye or with a flexible scope," she said.
"And then the challenge is, if it's hard to see it just with the naked eye, how do you identify it to then remove it?"
She said the problem is even worse if the patient is a child.
"Depending on the age of the child, they may not be able to articulate that there is a problem. They may not be able to explain that they've got pain and localize where the pain is."
Jones said in addition to the child she treated, a Winnipeg colleague handled two cases involving adults, leading her to suspect there have been more incidents than the nine reported to Health Canada since 2011.
Retailers waiting for Health Canada
Several major retailers that sell grill brushes — including Rona, Home Depot and Home Hardware — told CBC News they would be closely watching for Health Canada's findings.
"We are committed to working with Health Canada throughout the process. Our customer's safety is our priority," said Home Hardware spokesperson Jessica Kuepfer.
"We look forward to seeing the results and, as always, we will ensure our products are compliant with any changes in applicable regulations," said Rona spokesperson Valérie Gonzalo. "There will be no exception in this case."
Research published last year made waves in the United States when the University of Missouri study estimated nearly 1,700 people went to hospital emergency departments with a wire-bristle grill brush injury over a 12-year period.
The study's lead author, otolaryngologist David Chang, said the numbers might actually be higher because the research tracked only patients who went to an emergency department and didn't count people who sought care elsewhere.
"Even though it's rare, it has a track record of continually occurring over these years. And so I don't think it's an isolated type of thing," Chang said.
He declined to say what type of action Health Canada should take as a result of its risk assessment, but he says the review is important.
"Any national organization looking to protect consumers — certainly it's their duty to look into these issues and then come up with best practices.
"I think it's important … because it's something that's totally preventable."
Health Canada encourages reporting
In Winnipeg, Dr. Jones said "the simplest thing would be to just not have them available anymore because then we wouldn't have to worry about this particular problem with the bristles breaking off.
"I think that if there's not enough evidence to support an all-out ban, or recall, or prohibiting sale of those items, then there have to be stricter, easily visible warnings about proper use and proper inspection and proper precautions," Jones said.
"Unless Health Canada imposes stricter regulations, people will want [the brushes]. And so then the important part is education and awareness," she said.
Health Canada said its risk assessment of the grill brushes would consider a range of factors, such as the number and severity of injuries, how consumer behaviour plays a role in injuries, and potential risks if the product is no longer available.
Anyone harmed by a wire bristle being ingested should report the incident to the manufacturer or the store where the item was purchased, Health Canada said, adding the person should also fill out a incident report form found on Health Canada's Consumer Product Safety website.
Home Hardware said it sells brushes with stainless steel bristles because they are the best kind for cleaning hot grills but said, "it is important that our customers are aware of potential risks.
"A grill brush is subject to wear and we recommend that our customers replace it regularly to avoid deterioration," said Home Hardware's Kuepfer.
"We mandate that our suppliers test the product on the production floor of the factory to exceed the industry standard," said Kuepfer.
The retailers contacted by CBC News all made the point that their stores also sell alternative grill-cleaning products made of other materials.
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