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Tennessee Fire Official Warns About Dangers Of Color Runs

Posted at 4:54 PM, Nov 18, 2015
and last updated 2016-01-18 00:26:21-05

The top official in charge of fire prevention in Tennessee is warning runners to stay away from those popular runs with the brightly colored powder.

This comes on the heels of a NewsChannel 5 investigation that first exposed the potential dangers of these runs and how the powders catch on fire.

There have not been any reports of powder fires at any races. But when the same sort of powder was used at a concert this summer in Taiwan, the results were disastrous.

"That to me is a potential for disaster," said Gary West, deputy commissioner at the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance.

West, a firefighter by training, runs the State Fire Marshal's Office, and he's very concerned about what's happening at these color powder runs.

"Would you call them 'safe?'NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked West.

"I wouldn't call it 'safe,'" he answered. "I think there's potential for fire in this situation."

West was especially concerned by the giant clouds of powder that you find at these races.

"All it takes is a spark -- the right situation with a spark," he explained. "And if it does flame up, then everyone in that cloud is going to be engulfed in that flame."

Race promoters claim the powders are is simply dyed cornstarch.

But NewsChannel 5's test demonstrated that, when you shoot it or even just toss it into the air like they do at the runs, it burns very easily.

In fact, when similar powder was thrown over the crowd at a concert in Taiwan this past summer, a spark of some sort caused it to explode into a large fireball that burned nearly 500 people and killed a dozen.

"It's no surprise to me that a little bit of dust in the air can cause a huge fireball," West said.

The same sort of thing happened at the Hoeganaes plant in Gallatin four years ago. Iron dust ignited and exploded in three separate fires, killing five workers.

West said that, under the right conditions, even something like the gas powered leaf blowers we saw at some of the races could cause a spark and turn a fun run into something much more serious.

And that's why he now suggests avoiding these sorts of runs.

"I think people should use common sense and not put themselves in that situation," West stated.

"You're that concerned?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.

"Yes," he replied.

Dust is highly regulated in indoor industrial settings, but in outdoor settings like these runs, it is not -- at least not yet.

The State Fire Marshal's Office has no authority to stop these runs, but Gary West suggested that perhaps is something state lawmakers need to take a look at.

In the meantime, he said his office will encourage race promoters to take precautions and even consider not doing them or using something other than powder.

These runs aren't just happening here in Tennessee.

And because of the testing that we've done, fire marshals in several other states are also taking a hard look at these powders and runs.

Some have issued warnings. Some have rolled out new restrictions for these races. And all seem to agree that this is something that needs further study, perhaps on a national level.

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