Latin America and the Caribbean

National Catholic Reporter
31 March 1995

By Paul Jeffrey

GUATEMALA CITY--They call it El Hoyo--The Hole.

Tucked away in the back streets of Guatemala City, it's a section of town not featured on travel posters. Crammed side by side, the bars and brothels blare Mexican ranchero music while empty- eyed children lounge outside, their hands moving frequently to their mouths so they can inhale from a small jar or plastic bag. The containers hold a rubbery substance whose hallucinogenic fumes help the kids survive life in The Hole.

The children who live in The Hole represent a growing population of Latin America's youth. According to UNICEF, 100 million children live on the streets of the world's cities, an inordinate half of them in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Half the region's children are poor and a majority of the region's poor are children, a growing number of whom end up on the streets of cities form Monterrey to Montevideo. Rather than fighting to survive in families torn by poverty, alcoholism and abuse, they prefer to fend for themselves on the streets. Although it's a harsh environment, the kids learn to cope.

Glue helps. The narcotic of choice for street kids throughout the region is shoemaker's glue, a psychologically addictive substance which, when inhaled, provides an instant escape from the environment of fear. The glue's potent fumes ward off the pangs of hunger and provide warmth in a world of rejection.

A principal ingredient of the glue is toluene, a sweet-smelling, petroleum-derived neurotoxin. When inhaled, it goes straight to the frontal lobes and to the areas that control emotions; it turns off the brain's connection to reality, neutralizing stress, pain, fear and memory.

It's the perfect drug for street kids. It's comforting. It takes the place of parental affection. It also makes you brave; while observing street kids snatch watches and handbags on the streets of Tegucigalpa, Hector Palacios, a street educator for Casa Alianza, the Latin American program of New-York-based Covenant House, told NCR, "Look at their eyes or smell their clothes. It's glue that gives them the bravery to do that."

Yet toluene takes a toll. Occasional inhaling produces nosebleeds, rashes and headaches. Long-term usage typically results in irreversible neurological damage, kidney or liver failure, paralysis and death.

After years of abusing glue on the streets of Guatemala City, Joel Linares died of kidney failure in 1993, allegedly the result of chronic toluene exposure. On Jan. 3, in U.S. District Court in Dallas, two toxic-injury attorneys--Scott Hendler of Austin, Texas, and Michael Brickman of Charleston, S.C.--filed a wrongful death suit on behalf of Julia Polanco, the mother of the 14-year- old Guatemalan boy.

According to Hendler, the suit alleges that officials of the Minneapolis-based H. B. Fuller Co., which manufactures and markets glue in Guatemala, contributed to Linares' death by "designing, manufacturing and marketing a product that was an attractive nuisance to children. They knew that they continued to sell it without taking any steps to prevent it from falling into the hands of children."

The suit, which may be delayed and moved to Minnesota, has important backers. The head of Covenant House, St. Mary Rose McGeady, told NCR she was asking what she called "the most prestigious law firm in the United States"--Cravath, Swaine and Moore, a New York legal firm that represents Covenant House--to file a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the plaintiff. "We wouldn't do this if there was any other route," McGeady said, "but the company is simply stonewalling."

Referring to an H. B. Fuller-funded faculty position at the University of Minnesota, McGeady said, "It's incredible to me that a company that funds an ethics chair at a university could be so unethical in everyday practice."

Asked if such criticism of a large corporation could hurt fundraising efforts for her $70 million-a-year Catholic charity, McGeady said, "You can't let anything get in the way of doing what's right. And we are right on this one. I don't care if I never get another penny from Minnesota. If we do what's right for kids, then the Lord is on our side."


As inhalant abuse increased visibly throughout Central America in the 1980s, particularly among younger children, organizations started treatment programs for chronic sniffers. Yet the success rate is low. Casa Alianza, one of few such programs in the region, claims a 35 percent success rate.

Given the failure of education and treatment programs to make a dent in a growing problem, activists decided to take on the companies that produce and market glue. Corporate officials said it wasn't their fault if someone abused a product intended for legitimate use.

Yet one U.S. corporation decided 27 years ago that it could do something. The Testor Corp. of Rockford, Ill., became concerned in the 1960s about complaints that its toluene-based model airplane glue was being sniffed by U.S. children. In 1968, after testing 94 possible additives, it decided to add oil of mustard, a foul-smelling additive that's included on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's "Generally Regarded as Safe" list. Testor reported that sales dropped dramatically, as did complaints from police and physicians that the product was being sniffed.

Citing Testor's example, activists in Central America demanded in the 1980s that oil of mustard be added to toluene-based glues as a deterrent. The social workers and street educators had no illusions that the chemical's addition would eradicate substance abuse, since hard-core users could always turn to other substances., Yet they hoped it would at least keep many first- time users from getting started, while discouraging abuse among older users by removing the most easily obtained product.

Glue makers were reluctant to change their profitable ways, however, so in 1987 Honduran activists lobbied their nation's Congress to require all toluene-based glue sold there to include oil of mustard.

Enter the H. B. Fuller Co., which in Central America makes Resistol, the preferred narcotic fro thousands of street children. In many areas the kids are dubbed resistoleros. The slogan on Resistol advertisements--"You stick it and it never comes unstuck"--could apply to abusers as well as legitimate uses.

When the Honduran Congress debated the oil of mustard bill in 1988, H. B. Fuller weighed in with abundant corporate charm and a plethora of seemingly well-documented studies. Overwhelmed by H. B. Fuller's lobbying, in 1989 the Congress passed a watered-down law creating a commission that would set the amount of oil of mustard necessary. After more pressure and "scientific studies" from H. B. Fuller, the commission recommended zero percent.

The U.S. company pulled all the strings it could to manufacture public opposition to the law. It barraged local shoemakers, for example, with claims that oil of mustard would endanger their health. David Calvert, director of Casa Alianza in Honduras, told NCR that H. B. Fuller conducted a :campaign of lies."


Observing developments to the south, children's activists in the United States launched a campaign to pressure H. B. Fuller at home. In 1992, the Coalition on Resistoleros, run out of a cramped campus ministries office in Minneapolis, started telling the public the story of H. B. Fuller in Central America. They couldn't mount a consumer boycott because H. B. Fuller doesn't manufacture consumer products in the United States, so activists called on the public to use moral pressure. While acknowledging that other companies--especially the German firm Henkel--also manufacture and market shoemaker's glue, they claimed H. B. Fuller deserved special attention because it subverted homegrown efforts in Honduras to resolve the problem.

The criticism of H. B. Fuller drew media attention. On July 17, 1992, just days before the filming of an NBC "Dateline" investigation into the company's role in inhalant abuse in Central America, H. B. Fuller's board of directors unanimously declared it would "discontinue its production of solvent adhesives where they are known to be abused." The decision was proclaimed widely as an example of responsible corporate ethics.

Yet a year later activists in Central America charged that H. B. Fuller had not kept its promise and had done little to remove toluene from the hands of children. In Guatemala and Honduras, where the company stopped most retail sales of small cans of Resistol, it still distributes it wholesale in 55-gallon drums. Unscrupulous shoemakers, along with merchants in leather shops and hardware stores, resell it to children in small amounts. And retail-size cans of Resistol from neighboring countries can be found on store shelves.

In Nicaragua, H. b. Fuller put small warning labels on retail cans, advising that the product shouldn't be sold to minors. Yet many store clerks either can't read the labels or ignore them. Even Dick Johnson, H. B. Fuller's vice president, admitted the labels have little effect. "I don't think they have a lot to do with stopping the use," Johnson told NCR, "any more than the warning they put on cigarettes up here in the United States." According to Dr. Craig Lofton, a UNICEF official in Managua, Nicaragua, inhalant abuse has burgeoned during the past three years in Nicaragua. He says Resistol is what kids use most.

Officials at H. B. Fuller seem never to have taken seriously their directors' heralded pledge. H. B. Fuller's Bill Belknap told The Miami Herald in 1993 that the declaration of withdrawal included "an unfortunate choice of working on our part." The company returned to the argument--so effective in Honduras--that oil of mustard is dangerous, even carcinogenic. Yet chemists say its dangers pale beside those of toluene, which is near the top of the Environmental Protection Agency's list of hazardous toxins and made the EPA's Superfund list. Charles Miller, the retired president of Testor Corp., said of H. B. Fuller's argument, "That's so dumb, I can't believe people make that argument straight-faced," during the NBC "Dateline" program.

Many of those who work with abusers in Central America are similarly unimpressed with H. B. Fuller's rhetoric. "If they're so concerned about children, I think they would look at all the possible alternatives. Instead, they've been very stubborn," said Bruce Harris, director of Latin American operations for Covenant House. Harris told NCR that adding oil of mustard to glue would cost only 7 cents a gallon. But, he said, "of the 40 to 50 million street children in Latin America, more than half sniff glue. 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?"

According to company figures, Latin America represented 15 percent of H. B. Fuller's sales in 1994 but yielded a whopping 27 percent of its earning. Harris draws a comparison to H. B. Fuller's production of lead-based paint in the region: "For more than 15 years, paint manufacturers in the U.S. have worked under strong federal laws regarding the use of lead and mercury in paint. This is a U.S. company. But they export old technology, on which you get a lot of return. It's a cash cow for them."

Johnson bristles at such accusations. "You've got to remember that we don't sell to street children," he said. "We sell to legitimate users who are manufacturing a product, who are employing people who are supporting families. ...If people, children or adults, get it illegitimately, that's a concern to us, but you've got to remember that's not our main focus. Our focus is to provide products to industry, to users who in turn make a product. We do our very best to minimize exposure, to minimize danger, to minimize problems... We do the best we can, but we formulate for our customers, and our customers are certainly no illegitimate distributors of street children."


H. B. Fuller has felt the pressure. Although it still sells toluene-based glue in other parts of Latin America, last year in Central America it began substituting cyclohexane for toluene. According to Johnson, the changeover should be complete by the end of 1995.

H. B. Fuller introduced the new formula in Costa Rica with newspaper ads in March 1994 claiming the substitution resolved the problem of abuse, stating cyclohexane was "not attractive to inhale." Street kids agree that it's not as pleasant to sniff as sweet-smelling toluene. "And it doesn't get you high as fast," said Harris, "you get over the smell because you're more concerned about the high than the smell."

The suggestion that cyclohexane is less dangerous is misleading. A hydrocarbon solvent like toluene, cyclohexane also makes the EPA's Superfund list of hazardous toxins. "The difference between toluene and cyclohexane is like the difference between a .44 magnum and a .357 magnum," Tim Rohrig, an inhalant abuse specialist, declared in an interview last year with Multinational Monitor. Rohrig formerly worked as a medical examiner in Oklahoma and currently works as a toxicologist for a private laboratory.

Harris questions the relevance of what little data exists on cyclohexane. "(Occupational Safety and Health Administration) studies show you can have six times more exposure to cyclohexane than to toluene in a controlled working area. That's fine. But has anyone done a study about what happens to kids who have their face in a bag of the stuff all day."

Henkel, the giant German firm that competes for marketshare with H. B. Fuller in Central America, has also been under pressure from German children's advocates. As a result, in early 1994 Henkel sold its toluene stockpile to local producers and completely switched its product line to cyclohexane. But it didn't work. "The product became so expensive that the industry quit buying from us in April, and we dropped the product line in September," Michael Waechter, the general manager of Henkel's Central American operations, told NCR. He said cyclohexane-based glue was at least 25 percent more expensive to produce than its toluene-based counterpart.

Water-based glues will get manufacturers off the hot seat since they don't produce a high when sniffed. H. B. Fuller's Johnson told NCR that a water-based glue was "not in the cards right now," though he predicted, "we'll be the first ones to have it." Yet Henkel, with considerable hype, introduced a water- based contact cement here last month. Ricardo Carrasco, the company's regional manager for glue sales, acknowledged the new glue may not be suitable for many small shoemakers since it's not waterproof. Small shops also can't afford the hot-melt technology--sans toluene--used by many larger manufacturers.

Both representatives from H. B. Fuller and Henkel claimed that production and sales of toluene-based glues by national manufacturers have soared in the wake of their decisions to partially or completely remove themselves form the market. Waechter said "misinformed pressure groups" were responsible for the decision at Henkel's headquarters in Germany to discontinue toluene-based products in the region. "(Pressure groups) only help local manufacturers sell the product," he said, "which is what they're doing. They're now selling it to our customers, and nobody is going to stop them. All the organizations did was stop Fuller and Henkel."


Besides facing a lawsuit in the United States for its marketing policies here, H. b. Fuller is once again facing regional legislators angry about inhalant abuse. Lawmakers in several countries are considering legislation banning substances like toluene unless a deterrent is added.

In November, Rafael Barrios Flores, a member of the right-wing National Advancement Party and a deputy in Guatemala's Congress, introduced a bill here promising the safety and health of street children, which includes an anti-toluene clause. A dentist and public health expert, Barrios says studies show 85 percent of street children abusing drugs use toluene-based products.

"There are other things they can inhale," he told NCR, "but they cost more and are more difficult to obtain than glue." Although Barrios represents a party supported by large industrialists, he criticized a marketplace "where glue is sold and distributed freely, where nobody restricts its sale, which means we live in a country that permits the unrestricted trafficking of drugs."

Activists in the region are pressuring police agencies to use existing laws against those who sell glue to kids. In August 1993, after pressure from Casa Alianza and the government's human rights prosecutor, police here arrested nine people in The Hole and charged them with selling glue to children, mostly girls, involved in Prostitution. Those arrested were sentenced in July of last year to two to four years of prison. People selling toluene-based glue to minors have been arrested in Tegucigalpa.

Activists report that while distribution to kids continues unabated, the arrests have forced sellers to be more discreet. They suggest that police intended the 1993 arrests only as a show of concern, not as a new belligerency against drug dealers. Indeed, seven people arrested last August in The Hole for selling glue to minors had charges against them quietly dropped in January.

Harris said the arrests, although few, have helped. "Now we can say to people, `Hey, if you're gonna sell glue, look what happened to these guys,'" Harris compared it to the regional struggle against human rights violations. "Until you start to get a few concrete cases where you can break that impunity, people don't take you seriously."


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