During a three year period, 12 people arrived at the emergency room of Rhode Island Hospital after having ingested the bristle of a grill cleaning brush. The metal bristle had become lodged in their throat, stomach, or intestines and had to be surgically removed. This has lead to alerts from the Center for Disease Control, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and Congress. As of this writing, no pattern has emerged and no specific product has been found at fault.
The answer might not be so simple as a single culprit. Remember, that these 12 cases were from one hospital. In 2012, there were 5754 hospitals in the United States.
Most experts agree that regular replacement of grill cleaning brushes is the solution to a problem that could potentially land thousands of people in emergency rooms every year. This, however, will not solve the problem, but it will help. The issue is a combination of factors; the most important of which is how we clean our grills. Fire up the grill, turn it to high, or let the coals get hot, brush the grates to remove what was left from the last cookout, and throw on the food. Without properly cleaning, the grates, they may remain coated with oils to which a loose bristle might adhere only to be picked up by the food you grill. (see How to Clean your Grill for the proper way to clean your grill.)
Yes, a grill cleaning brush should be replaced regularly.
It makes a great Father's Day gift, every year. At any point then the bristles begin to look damaged, excessively bent, or filled with, well, gunk, it is time to replace the brush. But make sure, however, that you buy the proper brush. A good grill brush is made with brass or food grade stainless steel bristles.
The head of the brush should be hard, food grade plastic or metal to hold the bristles tightly in place. Avoid any grill brush that warns against use on a hot grilling surface. These use adhesive to hold the bristles in place, an adhesive that will degrade over time. The bristles themselves should be of thick wire that springs back into place, firmly set in the head, and evenly cut.
In preparation for this article, I purchased 15 grill cleaning brushes from various manufacturers. All but two, the Saber Grill Cleaning Brush and the Weber Bamboo 18" Brush and Scraper, were made with brass or non-magnetic stainless steel bristles. The Weber brush was of particular concern. The bristles on the one I tested were uneven and I was able to pull a bristle-free with my fingers. This is a problematic grill brush and one that should be avoided. On the other hand, the Weber 21" Three-Sided Brush was of good quality and one that I have recommended in the past. On the Weber store front, the Bamboo Brush sells for $7.99USD and the Three-Sided Brush sells for $8.99USD. Price is not necessarily a sign of a good brush. In fact, several brushes I purchased for under five dollars were more than competent.
But, what about a grill brush alternative? There are a few products available that will clean your cooking grates that are not brushes. As an alternative, there is Grill Floss which cleans all around the grate bars but requires cleaning each bar, one at a time. While Grill Floss is an excellent product, it is really only useable on metal rod cooking grates and won't work on some grills. Another alternative is GrillStone cleaning stones. These are made from recycled glass and work like a large pumice stone. Affective, but very flat and though they will eventually mold to the shape of your grill they don't form to the round shape of most grill grates. (I have more grill brush alternatives.)
My recommendations, if you wish to purchase a wire grill cleaning brush is to take it seriously. Look for a good quality brush that fits the recommendations I make above.
It is my hope that a thorough investigation of grill brushes is made. The use of glues and adhesives to hold metal bristles in place should be stopped. Bristles should be wound to heavy gauge wire embedded in a metal or dense plastic head. It is equally important that consumers be told to discard old, wore grill brushes. To this, I promise to remind my readers every year.