Latin America and the Caribbean

National Public Radio
All Things Considered - Weekend Edition
28 August 1993

Minnesota Company Continues Glue Sales In Latin America

NEAL CONAN, Host: A Minnesota company is drawing criticism for its continued sale of a shoemaking glue in Latin America. It's believed thousands of street children there are now addicted to the glue's toxic fumes. Critics say the company has a moral obligation to stop selling the glue or to add an ingredient that might stop children from sniffing it. The company, Minneapolis-based H.B. Fuller, says neither step would help the children. Minnesota Public Radio John Biewen reports.

JOHN BIEWEN, Reporter: No one knows how many children live and work on the streets of Latin America, but estimates range in the tens of millions. People who work with the street children say many of them sniff glue to get intoxicated. They become addicted to the solvents in glue, an addiction that eventually causes brain damage and kidney failure.

BONNIE HAYSKAR: It basically is something that does depress their hunger and does give them a feeling of satisfaction in a very primal sort of way. It completely deludes them about them about the existence they're living.

BIEWEN: Bonnie Hayskar [sp] of Minneapolis is a member of the Coalition on Resistoleros [sp], a small activist group working to stop the sale of solvent-based glue to Latin American children. Resistoleros, the term in some Latin countries for children who abuse glue, is derived from resistol [sp], the trade name of a leading line of glues sold by the Minneapolis-based corporation H.B. Fuller. Hayskar says Latin American adults buy resistol and other glues, divide it into small jars or plastic bags and sell it to street kids. In response to publicity about the problem, Fuller announced last summer that it would stop the sale and production of its adhesives where they are known to be abused. That announcement earned the company glowing newspaper editorials and corporate citizenship awards. But now Fuller admits that its pull- out from the Latin market was not a complete one. It did stop retail sales of resistol in two countries, Guatemala and Honduras, but continued its operations in the rest of Latin America. Fuller Vice President Dick Johnson says the partial pull-out was a test to see if it would help the street children.

DICK JOHNSON, V.P. Fuller Co.: One of the steps then was to just get out of the market. Would that resolve the issue, would that resolve the problem. Obviously, it hasn't.

BIEWEN: Johnson says the street kids in Guatemala and Honduras have simply turned to other inhalants. Raphael Barrios [sp], a member of the Guatemalan Congress, says the 5,000 street children in his country are still sniffing resistol. He says despite Fuller's cut- off of local retail distribution, people are bringing the glue across the border.

RAPHAEL BARRIOS: [through interpreter] In Guatemala every store can sell resistol or glue in the amount or quantity that you want.

BIEWEN: Barrios was in Minneapolis recently visiting a treatment center for kids who abuse inhalants. He charges that the bulk of H.B. Fuller's glue sales in Latin America ultimately go to street kids, not shoemakers or carpenters. Fuller denies that. Fuller's critics do not insist that the company pull its glue business from Latin America. The Coalition on Resistolaros wants the company to add an ingredient to its glues that would make them less pleasant to inhale. Another glue maker has done so. In 1968, in response to a wave of glue sniffing among American children the Testor company of Illinois added something called oil of mustard to its model airplane glue. Tester spokesman Guy Karinski [sp] says when inhaled oil of mustard causes burning eyes and gagging.

GUY CARINSKY, Testor Co.: We actually saw teenagers who were buying the product bringing it back to the store complaining that they no longer liked that particular product. We also noticed that the number of instances related to solvent abuse or sniffing type cases almost stopped.

Mr. JOHNSON: There is no evidence that oil of mustard stops sniffing.

BIEWEN: Johnson of H.B. Fuller says Testor offers only anecdotal support for the use of mustard oil. And there's no sense adding a deterrent, he says, because kids would simply turn to other glues or other inhalants such as gasoline and paint. Johnson says Fuller is instead attacking the social roots of the problem by giving money to Latin American social service organizations and starting small businesses like a car wash that employs a dozen street children.

Mr. JOHNSON: We believe the best way to handle this problem is to try to establish sports teams and try to get kids jobs, try to get kids back in school, and do all those things on a local basis, understanding full well that we're not going to resolve this problem, it's not going to go away any more than this company can resolve the problem of homelessness or battered women.

BIEWEN: In any case, Johnson says, Fuller is not to blame for the misuse of its product any more than an auto maker is responsible when someone drives one of its cars recklessly. But business ethicist Robbin Darry [sp] of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School says Fuller has the responsibility to make its products less damaging even if the product is not being used for its intended purpose.

ROBBIN DARRY, Ethicist, Univ. Pennsylvania, Wharton School of Business: It's not just like a few people driving down the wrong side of the road when they don't know how to drive properly. This is high numbers of kids who are being hurt by this.

BIEWEN: Darry finds an interesting lesson in the way Fuller has defined the ethical issues for itself. First by announcing the bold withdrawal of its products from Latin America, then, after largely failing to follow through on that promise, declaring the glue sniffing problem to be societal and out of the company's hands.

Ms. DARRY: When companies simply say we want to let our employees, our community or our customers know that we are an ethical company and they don't do it by creating good ethical practices or rewarding ethical behavior, but they do it simply by saying `We're an ethical company` many times over, loud and clear, through the megaphone announcing it, it is not backed up by substance and then it becomes a sham.

BIEWEN: H.B. Fuller officials they have no plans to change their policies in Latin America. For National Public Radio, this is John Biewen in St. Paul.

[The preceding text has been professionally transcribed. However, in order to meet rigid distribution and transmission deadlines, it has not been proofread against audio tape and for that reason cannot be guaranteed as to the accuracy of spelling or speakers' words.]

Copyright 1994 National Public Radio. All Rights Reserved.

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