The Color Run coming to a city near you

Image courtesy of the Color Run

Many travel to professional and amateur sporting events to watch and participate, and charity-based events to participate and cheer participants on. I’ve done it myself, participating in many American Cancer Society Bikeathons over the years.

Many travel to Florida to watch Grapefruit League exhibition baseball games. I have. Over the years, many have traveled to Chicago to catch a Cub’s game in Wrigley. People travel cross-country to see the Rose Bowl, or across the world to see the Olympic Games.

I have friends and family who travel to distant cities to participate in marathons, or to ski. Many travel to the Caribbean to sail, snorkel and scuba dive. Over the years, my dad and I traveled across the US, and even the “Pond,” to play golf.

Sports is an important part of many travelers’ plans, whether to watch or play.

In the last decade, more and more people are traveling to run. Whether it’s a 5K, a 10K, a marathon, or a triathlon, people from all walks of life are traveling across the globe to participate.

Recently, there’s a new race in towns and cities across North America: the Color Run.

This year there are more than 70 Color Run races scheduled.

The Color Runs are billed as “the Happiest 5ks on the Planet.” The Color Run is a “paint race” which, according to Color Run officials, celebrates healthiness, happiness, individuality, and giving back to the community.

The Color Run organization is very straightforward and honest about the fact that they are a “for profit” event company. That said, their races do raise money for charities, though how much, I can’t say.

Inspired by events such as Disney’s World of Color and paint parties, etc., the Color Run founders “wanted to create a less stressful and untimed running environment that is more about health and happiness.” Virtually everyone is welcome to participate, including families with children. People can run in teams. You start wearing a basically white shirt, but only basically, according to the Color Run FAQ, and by the end, it’s multi-colored.

As participants go through the course, they pass through six color stations: blue, green, pink, purple, yellow, and orange. At each station, volunteers throw colored powder onto the runners.

The color is thrown by the race’s “certified” color throwers, who are supposed to aim low as runners pass by. The problem is, at each station a big color cloud eventually exists, and you can’t avoid being “colored” from head to toe.

I had concerns about the colors thrown at Color Run participants, so I contacted Color Run to ask what were the color ingredients used for the races. Kim quickly sent me detailed information about the colors.

The main ingredient is Melojel corn starch, which is mixed with food grade dyes. Kim, a Color Run spokesperson, said the mixture is “Gluten free.”

The Melojel starch, typically used to thicken sauces, gravies, and puddings, is food grade, and an extremely silky powder.

The various dyes are all food grade dyes and fall under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C). The dyes used include: Blue: FD&C Blue 1 Lake Low, Green: FD&C Blue 1 Lake Low, mixed with FD&C Yellow Lake 36-42 PCT, Red: FD&C 40 Lake 36-42 PCT, and others.

I decided to check the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) of these chemicals concerning their skin and inhalation safety. While they’re certified under the FD&C, that’s more for ingestion than other contact. In the Color Run, the chemicals are airborne, and will contact the skin, eyes, ears, nasal passages, and are inhaled into the lungs. I’m aware that many think companies overstate the health and safety information on these MSDS sheets. Personally, as a graduate chemical engineer who worked in the chemical industry for 20-plus years, I don’t.

For corn starch powder, the MSDS says, “If inhaled, remove to fresh air. If not breathing, give artificial respiration. If breathing is difficult, give oxygen. Get medical attention.”

It also says for eyes, “Check for and remove any contact lenses. In case of contact, immediately flush eyes with plenty of water for at least 15 minutes. Get medical attention if irritation occurs,” as well as for skin contact, “Wash with soap and water. Cover the irritated skin with an emollient. Get medical attention if irritation develops.”

So what does that mean?

As UMass Lowell puts it, “Do not get cornstarch dust in your eyes. Avoid inhaling cornstarch dust when using. If one of these exposures happens, provide treatment as indicated. If irritation continues, contact your physician.”

The MSDS’ of the dyes says much the same thing. Examples would be for the Blue and Yellow.

I’m sure that thousands have suffered no ill effects from the “colors,” but if you’re considering traveling to one of the Color Runs, I’d pause for a moment and consider the potential health effects. If you or anyone in your family suffers from asthma or other respiratory problems or allergies, especially allergies which affect the eyes, nasal passages and lungs, I’d seriously consider staying home.

If you still plan to Color Run, make sure your eyes are protected, and your nose and mouth, too. I’d approach traveling to participate, or even cheer participants, cautiously.

  • Jeff Linder

    Another suggestion is not to bring a SLR or other open body camera if you will be getting close to the colors.. The micro particles destroyed one friends lens and required a heavy cleaning of the body (the lens was never removed and the body was covered in a storm shield).

  • Meg

    I would second this post. Participated in my first Color Run in Baltimore last week and came down with the worst sinus infection of my life two days later. I am prone to allergies/sinus infections, so I really should have considered that in advance. Will not be doing another one!

  • Engrcharlie

    Great article. Did they give you any information on the “flavoring agent” in the powder? The packets of powder indicate “not for consumption” which makes me curious if these dyes and the cornstarch really are food grade.

    I had to work at the event and it was a hazardous work environment. My ears were ringing, every surface of my body was covered in powder even though I avoided the explosions, my snot came out black for a day, and I had a cut that absorbed all this powder and is permanently colored. You do have to wonder what your lungs do with it.

  • Gwenyth Larsen

    contact the local health department with problems or concerns, that is the department that would have to step in and declare it a health hazard, not OSHA so the MSDS are not actually the only information to go by

  • Gwenyth Larsen

    cdc niosh osha agree cornstarch is flammable suspended in air. inhaled it damages the lungs inhaled through the mouth increases that risk and running increases the possibility one may be breathing through the mouth. proper safety equipment includes eye protection such as safety goggles or a full face shield and a respirator with the proper filters. if swallowed get immediate medical attention.

  • Gwenyth Larsen

    this cdc site lists the information from niosh that osha goes by as well

  • twistiesgirl

    I know it looks like glorious fun, and a photographer’s dreamscape (I are one), but the health concerns of breathing in cornstarch and dye are all I can think if when I see these races.

    Because it’s so colorful, people perceive it as completely harmless, but if sometime tried to force them to run through that the same powder colored black, I bet you’d get a very different reaction.

  • Ken Starr

    I have been contacting the color run for a long time. Cornstarch is not used in surgical gloves anymore because it has been found to cause granulomatous formations in the lungs. Not as bad as talc but when you consider how much cornstarch is in the air at a color run and you are not wearing a gas mask you might as well just be ok with lung cancer.

  • Ken Starr

    Wearing a handkerchief at a color run only makes you look like a bank robber and kind of stupid at that.

  • MLChadwick