Latin America and the Caribbean

CITYPAGES (Minneapolis/St. Paul)
11 August 1993

By Monika Bauerlein

H. B. Fuller's glue is a hit among Third World kids.
The company got P.R. kudos for dealing
with the problem, but something still smells funny.


How H. B. Fuller convinced ethical investors, the media, and the public that Third World glue-sniffers are not its problem.

It's hard to resist H. B. Fuller's corporate charm. Their environmentally sensitive research lab sits on the shores of Willow Lake near St. Paul and supports a 115-acre nature preserve. Employees work for good wages and top-of-the-line benefits; in their spare time, they're expected to volunteer for charitable organizations, which also receive 5 percent of Fuller's pre- tax profits. The balance sheet sings' so do socially responsible investors, who hand Fuller award after award, along with their trust-fund dollars.

It's hard, too, to resist the pictures from Guatemala: street children crowded around dingy corners, buying plastic bags of glue for a dime apiece. When they sink their heads into the bags and breathe, hunger, loneliness, and fear give way to a sense of comfort and power. Kids who've done this for a while develop chronic coughs, lose use of some of their limbs, vital organs, and brain cells. Eventually they crawl the streets instead of walking, still begging or stealing for more glue. Many die of kidney or heart failure, hunger, or police beatings.

Odds are that the glue the kids are sniffing is made by Fuller. The company says it feels bad about this, but so far it's refused to follow the lead of other manufacturers and add a foul- smelling substance that may prevent abuse. Instead, Fuller has taken a series of highly publicized steps--adding labels, supporting social programs, even pulling out of some markets after it started catching national media attention. Today, after collecting a slew of awards and glowing editorials for the way it handled the problem, the company continues to sell its glue in the countries where kids sniff it. And nobody, except a few activists and social workers, seems to be too bothered by that.

Fuller's story is an object lesson in socially responsible capitalism--how to make money while maintaining a good name--and a demonstration of the power of public relations. And in a way, it's an illustration of the Minnesota mindset at its purest: being concerned about social problems, doing good more often than others, and still not making a lot of difference.

H. B. Fuller was started by a St. Paul man named Harvey B. Fuller whose claim to fame was having invested a better wallpaper glue. He was also a pretty good businessman: more than 100 years after he opened his first glue-mixing shop, Fuller is number 371 on the Fortune 500 list, has subsidiaries in more than 30 countries around the world, and total sales approaching $1 billion.

In the U.S., Fuller doesn't sell consumer products. They don't make Elmer's Glue; they have nothing to do with the Fuller Brush man. Their stock-in-trade is industrial adhesives, glues that replace bolts and nails in everything from prefabricated houses to cars and planes. In Latin America, one of Fuller's most profitable divisions makes a glue called Resistol.

Resistol--advertised with a cute cartoon elephant and the slogan "You stick it and it never comes unstuck"--is popular among shoemakers, who buy it by the pail and use it in small manufacturing operations, often for export to the U.S. It's also popular among street kids, so much so that glue addicts are known in many countries as resistoleros.

Bruce Harris works with the Resistoleros. He's the Latin America director for Casa Alianza, an offshoot of the Catholic charity Covenant House, which runs shelters and treatment programs for kids in four Central American countries. Casa shelters won't admit kids when they're on glue, Harris says, which means many never come in: The stuff is so powerfully addictive that they prefer to live and die outside.

"It's important to understand," Harris says, "that we have never said that children go to the street because of glue. However, once a child is in the street, the glue is a very key factor in keeping them there."

Sniffing, obviously, isn't unique to Central America. Kids--and, experts say, a growing number of adults--in the U.S. have been remarkably creative at figuring out how to get high on legal substances, from text markers to fire extinguishers. New discoveries lead to often lethal sniffing fads, notably on native reservations and in suburban high schools. where other thrills are hard to come by. In St. Paul earlier this year, a 12-year-old boy was found dead in his room, the floor strewn with every imaginable source of fumes. And Minneapolis police rank inhalants as the second most common drug in some city neighborhoods--after alcohol, but before pills, pot, or crack.

The active ingredient in many inhalants, including Resistol, is toluene, a substance made from petroleum that has a sweet, slightly nauseating smell. In the U.S., it's widely used in manufacturing and is considered one of the country's top air pollutants by the EPA. Toluene has a peculiar effect on humans; it goes straight to the frontal lobes, the "switchboard" of the brain, and to the areas that control emotions. There, it can turn off the brain's connection to reality, neutralizing stress, pain, fear, and memory. In a word, it's the perfect drug for street kids.

"Glue-sniffing is a very pragmatic response of the children to the situation they're in," Harris says. "They need food, they need clothing, they need to be respected as human beings. It's not very complicated at all. We see five-year-olds with their heads stuck in plastic bags because it takes away their hunger, it keeps them warm, and it replaces their teddy bear."

Forty to 50 million children live in the streets in Latin America, according to the international advocacy organization ChildHope; Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, has 5,000 alone. They're the result of some 50 to 100 years of political and economic havoc, starting when land- owning elites and international agribusiness kicked peasants off their land to grow coffee and bananas.

In the last ten years especially, international debt--and, as a result, poverty--in most Latin American countries skyrocketed; at the same time, governments like Guatemala's launched military campaigns against peasant villages, driving more people into the cities and their kids into the streets. In Guatemala, more than 89 percent of the population are estimated to live in poverty; 67 percent are "extremely" poor, a nicer way of saying "not far from starvation." The vending and shoe-shining jobs children used to do are now taken up by jobless adults, so the kids turn to begging, stealing, and prostitution.

"It's a terrible, terrible problem," empathizes Dick Johnson, Fuller's vice president for corporate relations. "And the pictures are very, very dramatic. But that doesn't mean simplistic solutions can fix it."

Johnson is a friendly, white-haired man who works out of Fuller's headquarters on St. Paul's Energy Park Drive; nearby is the office of Tony Andersen, chairman of Fuller's board of directors and one of Minnesota's most popular executives. Andersen's father, Elmer, was Fuller's president and served a stint as governor in the 1960s. Other luminaries associated with Fuller include U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger (general counsel in the 1970s); Lars Carlson, a Fuller vice president as well as brother and adviser to Gove. Arne Carlosn; and former state House Majority Leader Ann Wynia; a board member and DFL favorite to run for Durenberger's U.S. Senate seat next year.

Johnson's job, as he describes it, includes dealing with investors, the public, charities, and communities, maintaining the reputation Fuller has built as a company that cares. Johnson is also a recovering alcoholic, so he knows something about addiction: "There's nothing you can put into whiskey," he says dryly, "that makes it any more repulsive than it already is when you drink it straight, first thing in the morning. Nothing."

That's why, Johnson says, Fuller has adamantly refused to follow the example of Testor Corp., a small company in Rockford, Ill. About 20 years ago, Testor had the same problem Fuller is having--only closer to home--when suburban teenagers discovered the cheap high from its toluene-based model-airplane glue. "We had two chemists back then," says Testor's regulatory affairs director Guy Carynski. "They went into the lab and compiled a list of possible additives, and they went trial-and-error until they came up with this oil of mustard, which they liked."

Oil of mustard is the stuff that makes broccoli taste like more than green cauliflower; it makes horseradish pungent and brown mustard spicy. In high concentrations, it makes your eyes burn and your throat gag: One of its derivatives is the `mustard gas' that terrified soldiers during World War I. In low concentrations, it's approved as safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

"We rest-marketed that formula in a certain geographic area without notifying anyone," Carynski says, "and we found that sales dropped off in that area, and people said they didn't like [the glue] as much anymore. So it was decided to expand that and add the oil of mustard to all the formula nationwide. Sales dropped. And we also saw a decrease in the amount of incidents and complaints that were coming to the company from law enforcement and doctors, and that led us to believe that oil of mustard was indeed effective, and we've used it ever since."

The oil is not a perfect deterrent: people who work with inhalant abusers report that there's till some sniffing of model airplane glue and other products that contain it. To test the effect, pick up a bottle of Liquid Paper sometime; it's maker, Gillette, put the oil in after Testor went public with its experience.

In 1987, Bruce Harris and others working with street children approached the Honduran Congress with a bill that would require glue vendors in the country to add oil of mustard. They acknowledged that it would be inconvenient for the companies, and that the kids might find something else to sniff. But because toluene glue is so unusually addictive, and because the problem was so disastrous, they thought it was worth a try.

H. B. Fuller swung into action. According to a sympathetic paper compiled by University of Minnesota business ethics professor Norman Bowie, the company set out to convince people in the press, government agencies, and relief workers that "not only will the drug addiction problem not be solved [by adding the oil], but rather the country's development would be slowed . . . Various products which are daily necessities would have to be eliminated from the marketplace. This...would mean a serious setback to industry at several levels."

Not convinced that the economy would collapse under the weight of mustard oil, the Congress passed the law and established a commission to determine how much of the additive should be in the glue. Fuller continued its campaign, initiating what was described as "extensive discussions" with commission members. Two years later, the commission came back with its recommendation: Zero percent.

It's hard to pin Fuller down on exactly what bothers it so much about oil of mustard. The stuff is expensive--Testor's Carynski says it's the most costly ingredient in its mix--but Johnson says cost is "not a factor." A Fuller position paper on the oil notes that its addition could make Resistol 30 percent weaker, but Johnson says that's not a big problem either; it would still be plenty strong enough for shoemaking.

Fuller correctly points out that, even if kids no longer sniffed its glue, there are plenty of competing products available. Their closest competitor is a German company named Henkel, which--in one of the ironies of multinational capitalism--also has Minnesota connections: Through a joint venture, it owns 25 percent of St. Paul-based Ecolab Corp., and a few years ago, it bought the chemicals division of General Mills. Henkel has come under criticism at home over sniffing of its Pattex brand glue; like Fuller, the company says sniffing is a social problem and not to be blamed on their product.

Fuller's figures do suggest that Latin America's glue market is not one they'd particularly enjoy giving up: Last year, the company reported that Latin American sales made up only 14 percent of their worldwide total, but accounted for more than 28 percent of earnings, a far better showing than U.S. sales. And Bruce Harris, at least, believes those figures must enter into the minds of some Fuller managers: "Of the 40-50 million street children in Latin America, more than half sniff glue," he calculates. "The hard-core users go through about a gallon a week. That's up to 20 million gallons a week. Do they really want to lose that market?" Fuller scoffs at that sort of math, saying sales of solvent-based glues provide a tiny percentage of its profits. Like most companies, they won't publicly disclose detailed sales figures.

What Fuller has said, over and over again, is that oil of mustard is simply too dangerous for its workers and customers. Johnson says the company never actually tested the oil on the market or conducted toxicological studies. But scientific documents about the oil do list a variety of unsavory effects, from nausea and burns to asthma. And one study, by the National Cancer Institute, said that certain rats, fed the maximum dose of the oil they could handle without dropping dead, developed tumors. The National Toxicology Program and the International Agency on Cancer Research do not list mustard oil as a carcinogen, but Fuller insists that they won't "expose employees and customers to this hazardous chemical."

That makes sense; it would make even more sense if other chemicals in Resistol did not have the same, and worse, effects as mustard oil. "Toluene is a significant neurotoxin," notes Paul Newberne, a former MIT professor and Boston University School of Medicine professor. "I would be more concerned about the effects of toluene than I would about the real or potential effects of ... oil of mustard. If the fear is from the alleged carcinogenicity...I would hasten to allay that fear because I do not believe it is of any major concern--the data are quite weak."

"Basically, our industrial hygienist tells us it's not a good product," counters Johnson. "And besides, as we've said before, it's a social problem. The problem is not the drug, it's the user. And what we are asking everyone to do is to work with us in helping those children get off the streets, and get at the underlying causes of this problem."

(Go to Part 2 of 2)

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