Is the #ColorRun hazardous to your health?

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The Color RunTM is in Newcastle this weekend, and I’ll be running the #happiest5k for the third time. It’s a great event with a warm and friendly atmosphere, and because it’s so family-friendly and kids are encouraged to #runwithmum, one of my young daughters will be running alongside me. There’s just one thing that I’m not sure of about this whole event, and that’s whether the “color”, which is the name they give to the coloured corn-starch (which is what we Australian’s call corn-flour) thrown at you throughout the run, is hazardous to your health.

When occupational hygienists are unsure whether workers are being over-exposed, they can perform what’s known as an “exposure assessment” to determine if the hazard presents a significant risk to health….so that’s what I plan to do!

The first step in the exposure assessment process involves information gathering. The Color RunTM website tells me that the colour is made from corn-starch and natural plant based food dyes…with the added bonus of being gluten free. That’s fine, except that corn-starch and natural plant based food dyes aren’t typically thrown into the air at you and then inhaled.

I contacted the Color RunTM and asked them for a copy of the Safety Data Sheet. I also told them that my daughter has asthma and asked if there was any advice against doing the run in her case. “Color Support” were quick to get back to me with the following information (sans SDS and reference to the question on asthma):

Thank you for your email! The color is a cornstarch base and is dyed with food grade dyes. It is even Gluten free. 🙂  Here is a list of the ingredients in our color: Blue Thank – FD and C Blue 1 Lake Low, Melojel Starch. Green – FD and C Blue 1 Lake Low, FD and C Yellow Lake 36-42 PCT, Melojel Starch. Pink – FD and C Red 40 Lake 36-42PCT, Melojel Starch. Yellow – FD and C Yellow 5 lake 36-42 PC, Melojel Starch. Our color has gone through extensive testing. In the Material Safety Data it says there could be some irritation since the color can form dust, but in all of the testing it states that there is nothing The MSD sheets show the Potential Health effects are as follows: Oral Exposure – Swallowing this material is not likely to be harmful. Dermal Exposure – Unlikely to cause skin irritation or injury. Inhalation Exposure – This material is a dust or may produce dust. Breathing small amount of this material is not likely to be harmful. Eye Exposure – Dust can cause eye irritation Symptoms may include stinging, tearing redness and swelling of eyes. Symptoms of Exposure – No data Other Health Effects – The material can form dust, which may cause skin or mucous membrane irritation. Symptoms may include redness, burning, and swelling. Although they may cause respiratory tract irritation, nuisance dusts do not form scar tissue or affect the structure of air spaces in the lungs. Their effects on the tissues are potentially reversible.

Whilst I like the smily face touch in their email, according to their information the dust may be irritating, but breathing in a small amount of material is not likely to be harmful. Have a look at the picture below. Do you think this meets the definition of a “small amount of material”?

I think the health risks might be a bit understated, hence the reason for performing an exposure assessment. As a preventative measure, our youngest daughter (the asthmatic) probably won’t run with us this weekend…and if she does, then she won’t be taken into the color throw at the end which is where the above picture was taken.

I then did a bit of background research on the health effects of corn-flour in general to understand the health impact: It’s relatively harmless when you buy it in the packet at Coles and use it to thicken your gravy, but when you get it as a dust in the air it causes irritation of the respiratory tract which can range from allergy-type symptoms, coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, eye irritation, through to asthma. Some people are what’s known as “sensitised”, which means that they are more likely to show some of the above symptoms when they are exposed to lower levels. Sensitisation can occur from previous exposures that may have happened many years after their initial exposure.

The next step in this exposure assessment is to define what’s termed, “Similar Exposure Groups” or SEGs. These are groups of workers that are expected to have the same general exposure because of the similarity and frequency of the tasks they perform, the materials and processes which they work, and the similarity of the way they perform the tasks. In this case, my SEG will be “runners” participating in the Newcastle Color RunTM. As part of this, I also need to identify the exposure scenarios, which in this case, will be focused only on the potential inhalation of corn flour to color runners.

I then need to make a judgement about the exposure, which in this case, based on my experience doing two previous Color RunsTM, I’m going to call the exposures “uncertain”. I need to also decide how I’m going to determine if it’s hazardous. In this case, as it’s not practical to sample all the color runners, I’m going to select a sub-set of runners and collect enough samples to at least perform inferential statistics…so I’m going to sample exposure from at least six runners. I do have a slight limitation here, as these statistics rely on the samples being randomly collected, and I plan on sampling a targeted group of people (including 3 hygienists and 3 willing participants). However, we are all at different levels of fitness and won’t all run at the same pace or at the same time, so I’m trying my best to make this randomised.

I then need to decide on an exposure standard (ie: a limit) for the assessment, and also a metric to use to compare the data to that standard. I’m going to use the value recommended by Safe Work Australia for grain dust (oats, wheat, and barley) of 4mg/m3. That value was designed to reduce the effect of respiratory symptoms, but it would not be sufficient to prevent sensitisation or occupational asthma in the long-term. However, as the exposure period is expected to last for around an hour, and I’m going to assume that participants (well, us at least) are not exposed on an ongoing basis, I think that this value is fit for purpose.

I also need to set the methodology and sampling parameters for the measurement approach. I’ll be measuring inhalable dust via IOM samplers in accordance with AS3640 (2009) with the measurement period starting from when we first line up at the “start line” and finishing just before we leave the venue of the Newcastle Jockey Club.

I’m going to use a simplified approach and go with the method recommended by the AIHA and use the Exposure Rating Categorisation System which is based on the estimate of the 95th percentile relative to the exposure standard. In every-day language, this just means that I want 95% of my data to be below the recommended limit.

If this were a work site in NSW, then I’d want to see 95% of the data below half of that limit, as anything over half of the limit typically means that the process may not be under reasonable control to protect the workers. Further to that, you already know that exposure standards are not a dividing line between safe and unsafe, they are designed to protect most workers, but not all workers…so you need some leeway in there also.

The next step is to put in some preliminary temporary controls to prevent over exposure. During the last Color RunTM my daughter wore goggles to prevent the colour going into her eyes, she wore a bandana around her face to prevent breathing in the dust (hygienists everywhere are rolling their eyes as they no how ineffective these are!), and we don’t go through the voluntary “air blown cleaning zone” which is promoted so you are, “totally good for the drive home”. We’ll use the same controls this time also.


It will be a few weeks until the results are in, but I’ll keep you posted on the outcome. If it turns out that doing the Color RunTM poses a risk of developing harmful health effects due to dust exposure, then sadly this weekend will be the last Color RunTM we will attend. That will be a pretty sad thing, as my daughter absolutely loves it. It’s currently on par with the One Direction concert at this point…yes it’s that sad…so fingers crossed!

35 thoughts on “Is the #ColorRun hazardous to your health?

    michelle wakelam said:
    May 9, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    It will be really interesting to see what results you get.

      Stephanie said:
      September 21, 2016 at 1:36 pm

      Just did a color run competition (game) for our youth. I DO NOT RECOMMEND THIS for anyone. I have been wheezing non stop, with terrible ear pain for 3 days not. This stuff is not meant to be inhaled at all. Nothing I do is bringing relief. See my you tube “Color Run: Wheezing”, obvious awareness

      Within minutes of competition the air was saturated as if in a fire of colored smoke, eyes were hurt, no one could breath. This was a very tough lesson for me. i am a voice now, this should be banned for anyone’s enjoyment. It is just not wise. I don’t care what any “doctor” says colored dye is NOT MEANT FOR THE BODY TO INHALE and certainly not have thrown in ears.

    […] The Newcastle Colour Run was on yesterday, and once again it was great fun morning, albeit a bit dusty! A very big thank you goes to the five volunteers who graciously wore personal exposure monitors for the entire run as part of an exposure assessment. […]

    Helen Oldfield said:
    May 26, 2014 at 2:16 pm

    Kudos to you for doing some research! My teenage son has Cystic Fibrosis and attended a school fundraiser which turned out to be a colour run. I was upset as his lungs are not in great shape and breathing in this dust is definitely hazardous in my opinion. More conclusive research needs to be done!

      Tm said:
      October 27, 2014 at 1:45 pm

      My word ! This is exactly my concern when I see these advertised, this practice is ridiculous why cant anyone participate in this stuff without some gimmick to get people to do it ! I have severe asthma and allergies which is what worried me but frankly so does future cancer. Thank God your son was made it thru’ without er care!

    […] provided details on the methodology I used to collect the samples previously (and what it looked like during the run), but I need to […]

    […] sampling methodology was the same as that implemented for the Newcastle ColorRun, with all samples pre and post calibrated in accordance with AS3640 (2009). Four willing […]

    Thomas Allen said:
    August 5, 2014 at 1:32 am

    Thank you for writing this. My friends want me to do the Color Run here, but I have asthma. After seeing pictures from another run that took place over the weekend, I have decided that it is simply too dangerous for me. Pictures showed huge clouds of dust. Runners take in air deeper and faster while running. I have no breathing problems whatsoever when I run in outdoor conditions of low humidity and heat. However, when the humidity is on the rise, the air quality diminishes and I find it difficult to catch my breath. While the Color Run looks fun, I’ll stick to training for a dust-free 10K next month.

    Kaylee said:
    September 28, 2014 at 5:44 pm

    This is an old post, but I still thought I’d share my thoughts. I just participated in the Color Fun Fest and I experienced medium to mild throat irritation (which continued throughout the entire night and after the Fun Fest, and at times it was hard to breathe. For your daughter who has asthma, I’d imagine that to be intensified? Something I noticed during the Color Run, is that many people actually had masks on to protect their airways. If your daughter had a bad experience, I highly reccommend doing this so she can still join the fun!

    google advertising programs said:
    September 28, 2014 at 6:05 pm

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    Tm said:
    October 27, 2014 at 1:40 pm

    Thank you so much for this info and results. My husband and I see the ads on tv of various sorts with this color dust being thrown and we always asked what the heck and how is that healthy!? I fear someday somehow they find its cancer causing too. But even in the short of it asthma an allergies is not worth risking and certainly growing childrens lungs. I have severe asthma an allergies so I think of these things but so many don’t till they get very ill. Its sad this ever began, exercise it to be healthy not lung dangerous any more then pollution that is. I think it should be stopped flat out. PS: my sister is very allergic to corn so this could throw her into a massive asthma attack she would never think of it either she is just like that.

    Matthew W said:
    January 4, 2015 at 1:24 am

    Plus one on the “this seems likea crazy idea” vein. I live in Utah, and unfortunately we have horrible smog in the winter, but many people in Utah are in denial about air quality. In fact, the winter smog is not referred to collectively as smog, rather, it is always referred to as “the inversion” which removes the concept of human contribution / causation due to automobile and industrial emissions and instead blames the smog on a natural atmospheric process. Perhaps a bit off topic, but it seems unsurprising that our state could create a run where a bunch of particulate is intentionally thrown on participants.

    T lander said:
    January 11, 2015 at 2:16 pm

    I have pulmonary fibrosis and it has bothered me that promoters of these runs say the powder inhaled at a time that most people are gasping is not harmful. It’s hard to say how much of this powder you would inhale at a time when you are breathing deeper and faster than normal. I think there maybe issues in the future that they haven’t thought or cared about. I realize that it is probably fun to get covered in colored corn starch but I don’t think people are being mindful of possible respiratory problems in the future. I can tell you from experience once your lungs are scarred it’s not reversible.

    LatteGirl said:
    February 20, 2015 at 4:49 pm
    Ray Moore said:
    March 18, 2015 at 3:11 am

    Does anyone know if there is an area where you can stay away from the dust. Maybe if you stick to the end of the pack and not go anywhere near the color toss at the end.

    Mike O'Donnell said:
    March 26, 2015 at 3:21 am

    I am very impressed with your study and analysis of this example of a TOXIC GIMMICK. It has saved my family from a needless and potentially dangerous exposure. And now I will look closely at your profession of Occupational Hygiene to learn all I can because of how much this information from you has likely saved many others from this exposure.

    Karen Boyd said:
    June 10, 2015 at 6:58 am

    This always looks like fun with joyful faces romping in clouds of vibrant color. It looked like even more fun a couple of years ago when I thought I had health and indestructible lungs. Now, at over 60 years old I have severe sensitivity to almost all irritants and at times severe asthma. Now I stay home a lot with the windows closed and the HVAC on since I am allergic to everything (that is an exaggeration, but I am irritated by a LOT of stuff. and I take a LOT of drugs which I did not before. I admit I did not do a lot to protect my lungs. As a child I lived with two smokers. I went to smoke filled places. I helped throw hay bales, cleaned up mold. slept with my cat, etc. etc. All of these were minor irritations, I was not a chain smoker for decades. I did not work around asbestos. I did not work in a feed or cotton mill. I did not mine coal. But I still spend time wondering if I need to go to the ER.

    So here is my point. If I had it to do over, I would do more to protect my lungs and my children’s lungs (so far asthma free) I would not use powder on their bottoms. I would not allow people to smoke around them. I would have worn a mask more often. But it is too late. I am urging my adult daughter to skip the color run. I urge everyone to be wiser in protecting their lungs than I was, because I am paying the price now.

    While I am on my soap box, I will mention one more thing. I encourage you to start avoid excess scents and perfumes. The also add up in the atmosphere and can eventually cause irritation. Entire industries urge us to use sprays and air fresheners. I suspect that one day we will find that this, also, is harmful to our lungs.

      Kristan said:
      June 12, 2015 at 2:43 am

      Completely agree! Thanks for the Info

    Kristan said:
    June 12, 2015 at 2:42 am

    I am a registered nurse and avid distance runner in the United States. I did this run when it was first becoming popular here in the states and took part in the color concert after the race where every 30 mins participants would throw color bags releasing colorful dust whilst dancing. Running the race was indeed a fun time however I couldn’t get my mind off of wondering if my lungs were enjoying it just as much as my brain was. Needless to say I could hardly breathe. I enjoy running so much- it is my release from stress, my time to get up and out of an air-conditioned building and into the “fresh air”. The last thing I want to have thrown at me is a bunch of dust. Granted, I will never run this race again but I do think that more health conscious measures need to be employed here. Im so grateful for your study and look forward to your results! cardio + “polluted air” don’t mix.

    Janet James Alman said:
    June 19, 2015 at 4:33 am

    Thank you for posting this article. I am an avid runner and participated in a Color Run this past weekend at the request of my teenage daughter. While it was great fun for both of us at the time, I have been sick with a sore throat and cough ever since. My last three morning runs felt like uphill slogs through syrup. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence and I was in the process of coming down with a cold or if it was the immense amount of colored powder that I inhaled during the course of the race. I agree with Kristan “cardio and polluted air don’t mix”.

    Aaron Chen said:
    June 28, 2015 at 2:10 pm

    Well..something worse happened in Taiwan yesterday as the powder was ignited by heat of the lighting system and the whole place turned into flame hell…

    […] Is the #ColorRun hazardous to your health? […]

    […] 彩粉除了對皮膚有害,澳洲一名疾病預防專家弗萊切(Holly Fletcher) 特別利用參加彩色路跑的機會,深入研究彩粉對人體的影響。 […]

    Monica said:
    July 20, 2015 at 12:06 am

    I did the color run in Omaha yesterday and I am really suffering today. Wheezing along with sinus pain and stuffiness. My chest feels very heavy. I’ve not had asthma in over 20 years. I won’t ever do this again.

    Malky Ramos said:
    July 30, 2015 at 11:46 am

    These people are obviously not trained in chemistry or toxicology. Take a look at the chemical structure of FD and C yellow 5 lake:

    extremely complicated and not meant to contact the lungs at high concentration.

    This might be safe and FDC approved at ng levels in food (0.00000001), but in giant dust chunks at mg level (0.01) these people are running a very interesting experiment on the humans in these races.

    (a concerned biophysical chemist that works with dyes and pigments in an NSF-funded lab)

    Chris Cowen said:
    September 15, 2015 at 10:24 pm

    I participated in the Toledo color run this past weekend. I had an absolute blast with many family members. After leaving and heading home, my nose started burning, like a bad sunburn. Now I am suffering from a moderate chemical burn inside my nose, on my tongue and roof of my mouth, which is even causing some bleeding. Also in my left eye and small areas around my nose, mouth, and eyes. I have a severe allergy to sulfur and didn’t see it on their basic ingredients of the dies. Now after reading here, I realize that I am having an allergic reaction to the color run powder. I wish they would have posted their detailed ingredients and saved me some pain and discomfort. My allergy is so severe that it has caused paralysis of my arms and face and also started to shut down my central nervous system, in the past. I guess it’s still harmless to the majority of the public.

    tommie said:
    September 24, 2015 at 5:29 pm

    Im so thankful for everyone input I will not be going to this event as planned. my health is the most important you can find fun in other safe ways. its not worth it. GOD BLESS YOU AND FEEL BETTER

    Kathy said:
    October 2, 2015 at 2:17 am

    Just did the color run in DC this past weekend. The next day I had a burning sore throat (not typical viral pain but a true burn) along with excessive mucus output akin to what one would experience to massive smoke inhalation. This let to so much pain and pressure resulting in an ER visit. Though fun, it completely toxic to some.

    Jacqui said:
    February 25, 2016 at 6:49 pm

    I did the colour run last June and think I must’ve inhaled quite a bit ( even though I’d covered my nose/mouth) it’s still on the air, and was nearly sick.., but since the day after, when I’ve sneezed, coughed etc, I still get the taste of the paint/flour , and it’s been 7 months..

    Valerie Jackson said:
    September 13, 2016 at 10:27 pm

    Canadian here…I totally agree… I have put comments on local news sites, emailed local cancer society but they do not care… Just keep encouraging people to breath in this dust. Just because corn starch is edible does not mean anyone should breath it in. I am totally appalled by cancer society condoning this gimmick to raise money.. And yes I am myself a cancer survivor.

    Rachelle said:
    April 24, 2017 at 5:35 pm

    I did the run today and had a whole bunch of fun except that afterwards I felt sick. I thought I was the only one but three of my other friends felt similar symptoms. Our heads were hurting like crazy and we experienced foggy brain. One of my friends even felt itchy all over so she couldn’t help but stop scratching. The good thing is the itching didn’t last long! Started to think that inhaling a large amount of powdered dye is probably not such a great idea since its entering the bloodstream. I definitely think there should be more research on these chemicals that are being ingested in the body. This was my first time attending and last.

      Valerie Jackson said:
      April 24, 2017 at 10:36 pm

      Canada here again. I have mentioned this here and on sites in Canada and it seems no one gives a damn. I cannot believe that those in the health care system would continue to do this…. maybe someone should start a class action lawsuit? I have been thru cancer. I think the fundraisers are to blame… Sickening!
      Who is making profit from this powder and what are the ingredients?

        alexatkinuk said:
        May 7, 2018 at 5:46 am

        The ingredients are easy to find, at least from “official” sources (, no doubt some events will get something cheap from China which could contain anything.

        Regardless of what it contain, breathing in any unnecessary dust is a bad idea and ESPECIALLY after exercise where you are going to breath it in much deeper. None-toxic is pretty much an irrelevant claim when it comes to dust, as the fact its a dust at all is a problem.

    alexatkinuk said:
    May 7, 2018 at 5:43 am

    As an Asthmatic I would avoid this like the plague.

    We already know that just because things are safe for food colouring/flavouring, they are not necessarily safe to inhale. Dust of ANY kind is an irritant and a bad idea.

    Saying “inhaling a small amount” is completely disingenuous as you can clearly see its NOT a small amount in these events, the whore area is saturated with the stuff.

    I would be doubly concerned with children as their lungs are still developing so any unnecessary irritant is just foolish to risk.

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