With the summer season kicking off, your grill might be getting regular use. But before creating your next batch of burgers, take stock of your grill brush.

If you use a stainless steel or brass wire brush to remove stuck-on food from grill grates, be aware of this surprising downside: Small, sharp bristles can break off as you're cleaning and get stuck to your grill's cooking surface. The next time you grill, the stray bristles can adhere to food and be accidentally ingested.

An estimated 1,700 Americans went to an emergency room between 2002 and 2014 after having ingested wire bristles in grilled food, according to a study published in 2016 in the journal Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. One in four of those with grill brush injuries had to be admitted to the hospital.

Those are not large numbers, but C.W. David Chang, M.D., a senior study author and associate professor of otolaryngology at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, says the study might underestimate the frequency of such accidents. That’s because the findings are based only on ER visits. It “does not account for cases presenting at urgent care facilities or other outpatient settings,” he notes.

According to the study, injuries from grill brushes have been reported most often to the mouth and throat. But in rare instances, people have sustained stomach and intestinal injuries after swallowing a bristle that's hidden in food.

You can get your grill grates free of food remnants and still prevent grill brush mishaps. Here's how.

Clean Your Grill Safely

Consider alternative cleaning tools. Depending on what type of grill you have (check your owner’s manual for recommendations), you might try cleaning warm grill grates with a tool such as a pumice stone or a coil-shaped bristle-free brush. You can also brush loose food particles off a warm grate with a wad of crumpled-up aluminum foil. Make sure grill grates are not hot enough to burn you.  

If you use a stainless steel or brass wire grill brush, take extra precautions. Check your grill for any bristles before cooking, and your grill brush and its bristles before using it. If some areas of the grill brush have fewer bristles than others or the brush is worn or warped, toss it. And if you use an electric grill brush, such as the Grillbot, replace brushes every grilling season or after 100 uses.

Get the right stuff for deep cleaning. When grill grates need an occasional big cleaning, “treatment with liquid grill cleaners (in spray and foam form) can help loosen debris,” Chang says. You might need to pair a liquid cleaner with abrasive pads, which have a coarse texture similar to pumice stones, to get rid of really stubborn food residue.