The Color Run comes to Sacramento amid flammability questions about its dust paint

Dust control expert raised concerns, but city says it’s satisfied with event planners’ safety protocols

Though united by color blasts of dry paint, the two videos paint starkly different scenes by the time they end—one in celebration, one in disaster:

In Philadelphia, an estimated 26,000 jubilant runners participate in The Color Run, dressed in white as they jog through psychedelic sandstorms of dye-colored dust. The video, soundtracked by synthy dance music, culminates with a city-swelling party featuring ecstatic, chalky faces.

In Taiwan, cellphone footage from June captures hundreds of water park attendees crowding a thumping concert stage as a nozzle spews lime-green dust over them. As neon plumes fog the crowd, they suddenly ignite into a fireball that sweeps through the audience, injuring 500 people, 200 of them seriously.

With The Color Run once again descending on Sacramento's Capitol Mall on Saturday morning, it’s the images from the latter video that trouble Earl Withycombe. An engineer with the California Air Resources Board who resides in Alkali Flats, Withycombe contacted the organizers of the “happiest 5K on the planet,” as it's billed, to express concerns about the dry-powdered paint that's used in both The Color Run and at the Taiwan water park.

Initially, Withycombe was worried about the respiratory issues that might come from breathing in dry paint dust, which is made from a combination of cornstarch, baking soda and food-coloring dye. “I thought that can’t be healthy for anybody, and especially for someone who might have asthma,” he said. “The flammability issue just startled me when I saw that Taiwan video.”

Specifically, Withycombe—who emailed event organizers and city officials as a private citizen—says the troublesome ingredient is corn starch, an organic material containing both carbon and hydrogen molecules that can cause rapid combustion in certain cases. The level of combustibility depends on particulate size, the number of particles per cubic feet and the ignition temperature, the dust control expert said. For corn starch, that temperature is about 750 degrees Fahrenheit. News reports suggest a lit cigarette ignited the fireball in Taiwan. Withycombe says an idling, lit cigarette can reach a peak temperature of more than 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Withycombe's email prompted the city's special event supervisor, Melissa Romero, to request additional information from event organizers about the materials used in their dry paint solution before she decided whether to grant or revoke the permit needed to go through with the run, which has caked more than 4 million participants since starting in 2011.

In response, regional director Eric King wrote an email saying their paint has passed flammability and respiratory tests. He added that organizers prohibit smoking and keep the powder clear of electrical equipment and extreme heat sources.

“In the wake of the tragic incident in Taiwan, we consulted with multiple experts to ensure our event execution protocols reflect best practices to eliminate hazards and ensure safety,” King wrote. “We know our events are safe and we are committed to working with you to ensure The Color Run® remains on schedule for August 1.”

In an email, Romero told SN&R that the response satisfied her and indicated the event would proceed as planned. “This response adequately addressed the City’s concerns,” she wrote.

Withycombe remained skeptical and planned to conduct his own flammability tests. “That’s fine and good,” he said of event organizers requiring a safety gap between various stages and participants, “but that doesn’t rule out all possibilities of an accident when a bystander with a cigarette walks up” to see what’s going on. “It’s like playing with explosives,” he added.

Specifically, he said the amount of baking soda event organizers treat their paint dust with to reduce flammability—estimated at 15 percent of the solution—may not be enough to fully ward off danger unless each particle of corn starch is coated with it.

He also says that King and event director Joseph Lopez have ignored his multiple requests to review the passing flammability grades their powder has received under European Union and United Nations standards. Reached by phone and email, Lopez didn’t respond to SN&R’s requests for documentation. King’s cellphone was unable to accept new messages.

In his initial response to Withycombe’s email, Lopez wrote that the for-profit company has hosted more than 500 events around the world without any fire-related incidents. The website for The Color Run says it promotes healthiness, happiness, individuality and charitable giving.

A news release promoting the event promises a “Finish Festival” featuring “music, dancing and massive color throws with accents of new confetti cannons, shimmery clouds of color, glitter, and more.”