Color Run powder and the risk of cardiac arrest

From ‘Any danger if it is inhaled?’, 4 July 2015, ST Forum

(Ace Kindredzen Cheong): I am relieved that the powder used for the Colour Run in Singapore is different from that used in Taiwan, which caused a fire that has left at least two dead and hundreds injured (“Colour Run to continue in S’pore”; Thursday).

However, I wonder if the powder used in Singapore will trigger allergies and irritate the eyes and skin. Worse yet, will it cause cardiac arrest if inhaled?

Already, there have been cases of sudden deaths due to cardiac arrest during running events in Singapore. Will the powder increase this risk? The event organisers, police and the Singapore Civil Defence Force should ensure that such powders are safe for use, other than being non-flammable.

While Chinese cities like Shenyang have cancelled the event under direction from ‘government agencies’, it seems like we’re going ahead with the ‘Happiest 5k on the Planet’.  The inaugural 16,000-strong race went without a hitch in 2013, and close to 20,000 participants graced the 2014 event. Other than tens of thousands of stained white shirts being sent to the incinerators, there appeared to be little bodily harm that came out a festival inspired by the Hindu ‘Holi’. During the same period, a man died while running a powder-less, ‘normal’ marathon. No one has asked for 42 km marathons to be cancelled over the risk of unexplained death.

But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t minimise the use of potentially hazardous materials if you can help it. The organisers have assured us that the powder has been tested for inflammability and successfully passed ‘the required EU standards’. On their Facebook page, they tell us that smoking is prohibited during the race, and that they use no electrical devices to douse runners with the stuff, though that doesn’t rule out the possibility of a freak ignition happening if a rainbow dust cloud gets zapped by a stray bolt of lightning. I doubt the EU can put such a scenario to the test. The fun people at Color Run encourage you to run in the rain, though.

As with all foreign particles, including baby talcum powder, coloured powder may well irritate the eyes, nose, throat and lungs, and most Material Safety Data Sheets about seemingly harmless corn starch that I browsed through online do alert users about its irritating nature. So you may complete the run teary-eyed, slightly coughing, or take the next day off because of a dye-induced facial rash, but otherwise happy as a lark, which makes running the tiny risk of ‘high pressure corn starch inhalation’ – a life-threatening accident, mind you – worth it. After all, there are considerably more dangerous recreational activities out there that involve jogging; you could break your ankle stumbling over a stone in Macritchie Reservoir for example.

The Color Run’s track record of no exploding-powder casualties speaks for itself, but what we lack information in is its impact not on human health or happiness, but the environment. Where does all the dye go after being washed off, for instance? In a cruel twist of irony, it was the Taiwanese EPA (Environmental Protection Administration) that had a legitimate concern about Color Runs contaminating the soil, groundwater and rivers in 2013. Maybe NEA would want to look into what happens during the clean-up process, lest we all end up drinking chendol-coloured Newater.

Not sure about sudden cardiac arrest, but you may not come out of the Happiest 5K smiling from ear to ear after your phone dies from exposure to green dust.

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