Toxic Color Runs

Posted at 11:43 PM, Nov 24, 2015
and last updated 2015-11-25 00:43:42-05

Most people have heard of or maybe already participated in a "color run" where volunteers douse runners with colorful powder at check points.

UW-Green Bay recently hosted a color run such as that, and it attracted runners of all ages and abilities. Most color runs are usually marketed as family-friendly fun runs, usually just a 5k.

However, not much is known about the powders used and by the end of the day, your body and lungs are coated in it.

In Taiwan in June, a group of people in a cloud of colored powder suddenly and violently burst into a fire ball. Hundreds of people were burned and 12 people died. Authorities say the powder could've ignited from a cigarette or heat from the lights but regardless of the source, everyone touching the powder was part of the flames.

Our Scripps-owned sister station in Florida worked with a local fire department to test how the powders reacted to different heat sources and the results were startling.

Streams of color easily ignited into bright flames. Naples Fire Department Chief Stephen McInerny says it was much worse than even he could've imagined, and suggested someone take a hard look at what the powders were made of.

So we did. By enlisting the help of Dr. Ngee Sing Chong at Middle Tennessee State University, an analysis showed that some of the powders were indeed just cornstarch or pancake mix. Many of the color runs advertise that the powder is just dyed cornstarch, baking soda, or other seemingly harmless materials.

But some powders had a dark side. Some had metals in them, known carcinogens, and one powder closely resembled the same chemicals in rat killer.

Another danger to consider, what exactly is being breathed in during a color run?

It's an issue most runners don't even consider. Certain color runs encourage people to wear a dusk mask or bandana but most runners don't, as they aren't even aware of a possible health issue.

Dr. Brian Christman is a lung specialist at Vanderbilt and also on the scientific advisory board for the American Lung Association. He says the powder can cause breathing problems for anyone with asthma or other lung issues. He also says it's the sheer amount of powder present that can be a problem for just about anyone.

So what does that mean for color run fans? Before you swear off fun runs featuring colored powder, both doctors agreed more formal testing is needed and admit that not all powders are the same due to different manufacturers. 

Hopefully the tests shown give a better idea about the powder's true colors.

For more information on lung health, you can visit the American Lung Association's website.