LATIN AMERICA GLUE ABUSE HAUNTS H.B. FULLER
By Paul McEnroe, staff writer
Photos by Richard Sennott, staff photographer
The H.B. Fuller Co. is accused of making the glue that a Guatemalan teenager used before he died in 1993. Fuller says that it has since changed the glue's formula and that inhalant abuse is "a social problem, not a product problem."
Antigua, Guatemala--At the back of a graveyard overtaken by weeds and plastic wreaths, there is a white crypt that contains the remains of 10 street children. No other gravesite is kept as clean by the caretaker.
It's said that the absence of litter around the crypt is the caretaker's way of conveying that, at least in death, the value of these children is elevated above the garbage-filled streets on which they lived and died in Guatemala City.
A child by the name of Joel de Jesus Linares rests in the top row. The inscription under his name reads: "You fought for your life and you live."
In a sense, the inscription is more true today that when he died. Three years after his death, Linares still lives in the corporate boardroom of the esteemed H.B. Fuller Co. in St. Paul, Minn., as well as in the minds of human rights attorneys, business ethicists and youth workers throughout Latin America.
He is the center of a wrongful death lawsuit filed by his family in January against Fuller, which is accused of manufacturing a toxic shoemaker's glue product, Resistol, that allegedly contributed to his death in January 1993. At a hearing scheduled for Thursday in Duluth before U.S. Magistrate Raymond Erickson, Fuller is expected to ask that the case be dismissed because it should be heard in a Guatemalan courtroom.
The stakes in the Fuller case are immense. The company finds itself a defendant in a federal case that the family's attorneys say could expand into a class-action suit encompassing upwards of 15,000 children who abuse inhalants in Guatemala. At risk are millions of dollars and the reputations of the company's top leaders.
Fuller vigorously defends its glue, saying it is no longer being abused by street children because the company has reformulated the product and increased the price.
Company executives believe that because they have replaced a sweet-smelling, addictive toxic chemical, toluene, with another toxic but less-odorous chemical, children have turned to other brands.
But Fuller senior [vice] president Dick Johnson acknowledged that he has no hard evidence to prove the product isn't being abused.
"I couldn't write it down. I couldn't document it, but it would make sense because it's 30 percent higher and...the product is less attractive to kids," Johnson said.
Beyond that question comes the issue of whether U.S. corporations will be held responsible for business practices that affect the welfare of children in the Third World. Also, just how far must a company go to prove it has tried to keep a toxic product from the hands of those children?
Linares has become a symbol for the welfare of millions of street children from Mexico City to Rio, many of whom walk around as he once did, zombies taking deep draws off their drugs of choice--baby-food jars of glue, or rags soaked with paint solvents--the inhalants that smother their desire for food and ward off the cold.
Mark Connolly, a UNICEF program manager who knew Linares, said the organization only expects the inhalant crisis to worsen in Latin America. "The governments can't stop it," he said. "The issue is availability. The menu out there for substance abuse is so huge. If no glue is available, it still wouldn't have any impact on substance abuse."
In early 1992, Linares' frowning portrait appeared on leaflets dotting bulletin boards in stores across the Twin Cities. Children's rights advocates, known as Coalition [on] Resistoleros, said that unless he received money for a transplant, Linares would soon die, allegedly because his organs were destroyed from sniffing paint thinner and toluene-based glue.
Much of that glue, said these advocates, came from the Central American production plants of the Fuller Company, a multinational Fortune 500 company that rose in stature under the leadership of Elmer L. Andersen, ex-governor of Minnesota. With his guidance--and then that of his son, Tony--the company has prided itself as one of the leading socially responsible businesses in the United States, funding a chair on the study of business ethics at the University of Minnesota, as well as establishing a charitable foundation dedicated to the environment, the arts and social programs.
Founded in 1887, Fuller is a world-wide manufacturer of adhesives, sealants and paint coatings. The company says its sales of solvent adhesives in Latin America represent a fraction of 1 percent of its total revenues.
Fuller will not divulge what its market share in glue sales is in Central America but says that in recent years it has profits of about $450,000 a year from glue sales in the region. Executives said the cost of dealing with the public relations issue that shadows the company has outweighed that profit.
Fuller says it stays in the Latin American market because "We believe those little [shoe] businesses need to survive," said Johnson. "They provide employment, help relieve the issue of poverty, and we're willing to do whatever we can."
The Linares case isn't the only issue that the company is facing these days. At Fuller's annual meeting last week, a Catholic health-care organization that owns stock, urged that the company stop supplying glue to tobacco companies in the United States and abroad because peripheral companies such as Fuller may be the next target in cigarette-related lawsuits.
The Minnesota-based Coalition [on] Resistoleros chose Fuller as a target of protest because they argued that Resistol had been widely abused for years in Latin America. Gangs of hungry children hanging out on street corners had assumed a generic identity--the Resistoleros--whether they inhaled that brand or not.
Much of the coalition's effort in the early 1990s centered on pressuring the company to add a harsh-smelling oil-of-mustard ingredient to Resistol. They believed such an additive would discourage Resistol's use but the company said such a move would be useless.
At 16, Linares died in a halfway house for street children in Guatemala City, reportedly just before his mother was going to donate one of her kidneys to him. Joel Linares was mostly forgotten.
That is until January, when Fuller found itself accused of contributing to his death. In the complaint filed against the company, Fuller is accused of knowingly making an "extremely addictive product" that caused "severe physical and neurological damage" to thousands of Central American children, not doing enough to prevent the glue from getting to the children, failing to warn of the dangers of inhaling the product and refusing to add deterrents that would keep children from inhaling it.
In its defense, Fuller contends that it "neither manufactured nor sold Resistol," according to court briefs filed by the company's attorney, former U.S. Magistrate Jan Symchych. Rather, it was Fuller's subsidiary, Fuller-Guatemala, that actually made and sold Resistol, according to the briefs. The allegations "are nothing more than an attempt to hold Fuller liable for acts and omissions of its second-tier Guatemalan subsidiary," the briefs said.
"The guts of Fuller's defense in the Linares case is that black-market dealers are responsible for the tragic abuse of children in Central America," said Symchych in an interview. "But before we get to that issue, there will have to be a decision whether an American court...is willing to impose American legal principles on foreign disputes. It's like the Union Carbide poison gas case in Bhopal, India. A court in the U.S. concluded it would be an act of American arrogance to keep the case in the U.S. and it was fought in India."
Scott Hendler, an Austin, Texas attorney who is leading the case against Fuller on behalf of the Linares family, argues that crucial corporate decisions made at Fuller's headquarters in Minnesota dictated Fuller's Latin American glue operations.
Hendler has studied international human rights law and policy at the Inter-American Court of Rights in Costa Rica and is a member of the Trial Lawyers for Public Justice.
He said attorneys from three firms across the country, including Heins, Mills & Olson of Minneapolis, "are amassing a war chest of $1 million" to fight the Fuller case.
"Fuller consciously chose to market its glue products in countries where it knew its products were subject to widespread use by children and virtually no regulation," said Hendler's brief.
"As a result of Fuller's corporate policy decisions made in Minnesota--not in the office of a Guatemalan subsidiary--an entire generation of children was knowingly endangered because of this dangerous, toxic product," said Hendler in an interview.
"The body count goes up and Fuller chalks it up as the price of doing business. To say their product is no longer being abused, to me is an implicit admission that these children were previously loyal to Resistol, which is what we contend."
One of Fuller's advertising slogans is" "We work chemistry into answers."
And Fuller says it may have found the one that solves the inhalant-abuse problem.
This past winter, Fuller began testing a water-based non-toxic glue among Central American manufacturers who are making 5,000 pairs of shoes with the experimental formula. The company says it is optimistic that the formula will hold up and that the region's shoe market will be influenced to use the new product.
They deny they are pushing for a new solution because of pressure from the children's advocates, but because toxic glue solvents are an environmental issue.
Even before this, the company said it took significant steps that addressed the issue of children's welfare and abuse of toxic substances.
Fuller's Dick Johnson says that beginning in 1994, Fuller changed the chemical makeup of its glue because it wanted Resistol to be "less attractive" to children.
It decided to replace toluene with a less-toxic and less-aromatic chemical, cyclohexane, so that by the end of that year there would not be any toluene-based Resistol on the shelves in Latin America. Along with the reformulation came a 30-percent price increase. And for those two reasons, the company believes children are not inhaling its product.
"There are six or seven other manufacturers in Central America that make toluene-based products," says Johnson. "Our feeling today is that after doing some discussion with our people down there, that the kids are using other products that are toluene based and not using our products with cyclohexane."
Richard Kingston, senior clinical toxicologist for the Minnesota Regional Poison Center at St. Paul Ramsey Medical Center and assistant professor of pharmacy at the University of Minnesota, support Fuller's view. "It [cyclohexane] is less volatile than toluene, and so less desirable" to abusers. "It's more difficult to get high concentrations of cyclohexane because it does not evaporate as quickly." Kingston has consulted with Fuller but it's not known if he will testify on behalf of the company, said Symchych.
Others disagree with Kingston and Fuller.
Dr. Herbert Schaumberg of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, N.Y., one of the most highly regarded experts in the United States on inhalant abuse, said that Fuller cannot scientifically prove that street children inhaling solvents no longer use the company's product. Schaumburg has consulted pro bono with plaintiff attorneys and will likely testify on the effects of inhalant abuse on the body.
"The kids will sniff anything to get high," he said. "They would not be able to tell the difference by smell between cyclohexane and toluene because they lose their sense of smell. It is one of the first things to go--they have an impaired sense of small. It's obvious nobody can tell what's in the baby jars. But Fuller can't prove their product isn't being abused."
Dr. Tim Rohrig, a toxicologist who consults nationally for medical examiners in cases of death by poison or drugs, said he's skeptical that glue-addicted children have turned completely away from Resistol. "I doubt the kids are that sophisticated that they can differentiate by odor," he said. "If it can get them high, then they will use it.... They may have to take more sniffs with cyclohexane than they would with toluene but they still can get the desired intoxication. As long as the kids can get that effect, why are they going to change?"
Walking the streets and markets in the capitals of Latin America, it is very difficult for anyone besides a black-market street dealer to say what brand-name glue is being inhaled by children. That's because the glue they use is repackaged into unlabeled baby-food jars, which are then sold by shoe repairmen.
Concepcion Aparicio, a social worker for the Salvadoran government, said she believes street children are still abusing Resistol. She scoffed when she saw a label on a can of Resistol sitting on the shelf of a downtown hardware store in San Salvador. The label said the glue contained cyclohexane, which was unattractive for inhaling. "All the kids on solvents say they use glue--Fuller's and other brands like El Toro," she said.
Roger Zavala, a shoe repairman in Managua, Nicaragua for the past 20 years, said he buys Resistol by the gallon and barrel. He says street children in the Oriental Market where he works constantly steal jars of glue from him.
In 1992, two years before it began to change its product, Fuller decided to remove the product from retail shelves in Guatemala and Honduras because it said it recognized the ethical issues "arising out of the abuse" of Resistol by street children.
Besides pulling Resistol from retail shelves in those two countries, Fuller said it would tighten distribution on a wholesale level to prevent product abuse.
But within a year, Fuller was accused by advocates of not following through, which attorney Hendler says remains a large part of the Linares case.
In an interview, Fuller's Johnson said, "OK, so we didn't have all the answers... Consequently, we find out that withdrawing from the market has not made one bit of difference in inhalant abuse or solvent abuse by children. Withdrawal is not the solution. If this had worked well in Honduras and Guatemala we would have gone on. We stopped...it wasn't doing any good."
Fuller still sells Resistol in Guatemala and Honduras. In those two countries, the company says, it sells only directly to industrial users, eliminating the distributor in order to have better control over keeping Resistol off the black market. "It's a social problem. It's not a product problem," Johnson said.
Marilyn Rocky is the executive director of ChildHope, an international agency for street children that works with UNICEF, Save the Children-UK and World Vision. She has seen a lot of street corners and a lot of glue. If it's Romania, for example, the brand is Aurolac. It it's Russian, it's glue and gasoline. Nairobi, Kenya--glue. The same in Southeast Asia. Tick off the country, she ticks off the inhalant.
"The point is that the situation these kids are in, from all over the world, is what makes them all so vulnerable to drugs. It's not just H.B. Fuller's glue and Central and Latin America," she said.
According to ChildHope, there are about 40 million street children in Latin America. It estimates that nearly all of these children use or have used common street drugs, glue and thinner being the most widespread because they are among the cheapest.
One of the kinds of children Rocky is talking about is Maritza Caceres, 16, who lives in a wooden stall across from Parque Libertad in downtown San Salvador. Three months pregnant, she eats a salted lime and chases it by sniffing glue. She walks around with a jar of glue for herself, removing it from under her shirt now and again to share a few globs with friends. Sober men and women pass her by, but there is no reaction on their faces. The country is hard, the city harder. War and chaos through the 1980s has left calluses on people who have no time for the likes of her.
Caceres says, "My first baby died from the glue. He was 7 months old. Angel Alexander. The doctors said it was his liver, and that it was caused by the glue. I almost stopped glue after the first baby died. I was depressed. Three months ago I wasn't on it. I'm desperate. This baby's father is addicted."
A few miles away, a soul is saved--at least for a week. Oscar Antonio Flores, a 14-year-old "flame-thrower," is resting at a cottage at the Institute for the Protection of Children in San Salvador. He's been convinced to come off the street for a few days and get his bearings while Aparicio, the government social worker, tries to persuade his mother that her son shouldn't be pushed into doing what is making him critically ill.
He's crying. He's caught in the middle and feeling stretched. He feels rotten even though he's got all the food he needs. What he wants is the glue he sniffs to ease the pain of the ulcers in this throat and stomach. They are the result of swallowing diesel fuel that he turns to flame against the city's nightscape.
In El Salvador and Guatemala, flame-throwing by scores of street children is the latest off-shoot of glue addiction. The Salvadoran government has launched a public health campaign asking people to stop paying these children who entertain them while risking their lives.
Oscar says he can earn about 50 colones ($5.75 in U.S. dollars) in a night of performing such theater. He brings the money home to his family. Home is under an oxcart. Oscar has been throwing flame since he was 10. He has paid dearly while trying to help feed a large family. Of eight brothers and sisters, he's the sixth.
Oscar uses glue to soothe the pain in his throat and stomach. "The body asks you to do it. I need it. I always have pain. My kidneys always hurt."
Whether Oscar will be able to stay clean is impossible to say. Aparicio said his mother had appeared at the gate of the compound to take him home. Aparicio was having none of it, not convinced the mother was sincere.
"Three other brothers and sisters are sniffing glue," says Aparicio. "his sister, Blanca, cannot walk anymore because of the glue. An older brother has two children and he still uses."
Facing the tragedy of stories such as these, Rocky says, is a much broader issue than just Resistol. "You could blow Fuller off the face of the Earth and the kids down there will somehow come up with 20 bucks and still come back with a smorgasbord of other kinds of drugs," said Rocky. "Fuller's problem is that they put themselves in their own bad place. The rock has hit their temple."
Still, rather than single out Fuller, she says she believes attention should focus on the issues of what causes the children to turn to solvents in the first place--a longtime argument of Fuller's. "There should be outrage, there should be the political will to stop abuses of children who are exploited," she said. "We should also be talking about HIV infections of street children, assassination squads in Brazil who seek these children out and kill them."
So where does corporate responsibility play a role in the debate?
Bruce Harris, executive director of Casa Alianza, which is affiliated with Covenant House in New York City, is one of the loudest advocates for the street children of Latin America. Harris was recognized by Amnesty International as one of the organization's world heroes.
"Our idea is that any product that is misused, we as adults have a responsibility to protect the children [from] the best we can," said Harris. "Toluene is sweeter smelling than cyclohexane. It smells great. And if you're a new kid on the block, you may consciously go for sweeter stuff. But if you've been on the block a while, you go for the high, and cyclohexane gives you the same high."
For 20-year old Ruth Linares, this is only the second time she has been to her brother's crypt. The first time was when he was put to rest. It costs 50 cents by bus to make the trip from Guatemala City, and that's too expensive for her. To buy flowers is out of the question. Today, the day seems longer because of what she heard the night before.
It was nearly 10 when her youngest and only remaining brother, Miguel, 18, finally walked into their two-room hut in the Carolangia barrio on the backside of Guatemala City. As the talk around the dinner table turned to hallucinations and glue and body parts feeling afire, she shook her head.
"When you are living on the street, the glue takes away your anger and you feel very warm. You aren't hungry anymore," said Miguel, bragging how he'd been cold turkey off the glue and solvents for two days. "When I do it, I can see the cars exploding in flames in my mind and my kidneys feel on fire. Joel started when he was 8. We'd sing on the buses for food or money to buy glue. Because there was no food at home. In the end, Joel only did the glue. He didn't care about eating anything. When he did, he would put salt on everything because he couldn't taste anything. In the orphanage, that night, they waited for him to come to dinner and when he didn't come to the table, they found him in his bed. He was cold when they touched him."
Ruth had heard this talk before and it only heightened her worry that one of the eight remaining slots in the crypt holding her brother will soon hold the other. "He's using a lot of glue and solvent," she said of Miguel.
Now, with her baby son and younger sister looking on, she moved a step closer to the crypt and prayed for Joel and Miguel: "I ask that God receive Joel in heaven and pray that no more like Joel come to Him."
At sunset, they left and the caretaker nodded his respects. In an ancient city designated by the United Nations as a Monument to the Americas, this crypt at the end of the path seems the street child's monument to sorrow.
"These children will tell you they know they have nothing to live for and that they are heading down a one-way street to be buried in this kind of place," said Glynn Fry, an English youth worker for Casa Alianza who accompanied Linares on her anguished trip.
"We are a world treating this cancer with an aspirin. These are children who have been born into the dying class. That is their fate and the world doesn't really care.
"That is why they go to sleep with a grip on the glue. To try to forget."
(Staff Writer Sue Peterson and Librarian Roberta Hovde contributed to this report.)
Copyright 1996 StarTribune
Copyright 1996 StarTribune
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