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Coming Unglued

Daniel Ruen

Bruce Harris was quietly typing away in his small, overcrowded office in Costa Rica when he got the call from Harper's. It was mid-January, and he had already spoken once to the magazine's fact checker, who was verifying some details for a story on Latin American street kids addicted to glue. The editor explained that the manufacturer of the glue in question, St. Paul's own H.B. Fuller Company, had sent the magazine a letter saying it no longer sold addictive shoe glues in Latin America.

"I didn't believe it," Harris--the regional director of Latin American programs for the international children's charity Covenant House--recalls. "I asked her to send it. I started making calls around to check." His inquiries at various hardware stores seemed to confirm the company's claim; but Harris remained skeptical. "As always with H.B. Fuller, there's a certain amount of intrigue," he says. "You're trying to understand their corporate conscience, if they have one. We take a lot of things they say with a grain of salt."

For more than a decade, Harris has been perhaps the most vocal spokesperson for an international crusade aimed at reducing glue addiction among street kids. Solvent-based adhesives contain powerful toxins, such as toluene and cyclohexane, which when inhaled can erase feelings of hunger, stress, and pain; they also affect the brain and central nervous system and can cause medical problems as severe as brain damage or kidney failure. In much of Latin America, glue addicts are known as resistoleros, after an adhesive made by Fuller and used mostly in the shoemaking trade.

The issue drew media attention in the early and mid-1990s, when Harris and other child advocates demanded that Fuller either switch to less toxic, water-based glues or reformulate the solvent-based products to make them smell bad. Pictures of kids with their heads buried in plastic bags went around the world; there were TV specials, newspaper articles, and questions at Fuller shareholder meetings. The company refused to yield to the activists, but said it was working to solve the problem in other ways. Eventually the story faded from the headlines.

Occasionally, though, a journalist would come knocking. About two years ago a New York-based freelance reporter, Keith Kachtick, interviewed Harris for an Esquire story about the addiction issue. The magazine opted not to run the piece; staffers at Esquire did not return City Pages' phone calls by press time, and Kachtick won't discuss the reasons. He does say he pitched the story to other publications; according to Harper's associate editor Donovan Hohn, the magazine bought Kachtick's piece last summer and scheduled it for publication in March.

In January, Harper's started fact-checking the story; upon calling Fuller, editors received a letter from the company's PR director, Keralyn Groff, explaining that the firm had stopped selling solvent-based glues in Latin America. Hohn and Kachtick contacted Harris, who made his phone calls and confirmed that Resistol distributors had been told to expect no shipments of the adhesive after November 30, 1999. For Harper's, that settled the matter: Hohn says Kachtick's story is "indefinitely on hold" and will only be resurrected if Fuller's contention proves false.

According to Groff, the letter Harper's received is Fuller's standard statement on inhalant abuse, sent out to anyone who inquires about the issue. The document says Fuller spent the better part of the past decade trying to make its solvent-based glues harder for children to obtain and less attractive to inhale, while at the same time developing water-based alternatives. "After years of effort," the letter states, "it became apparent that we would not be able to change the small footwear manufacturing customer over to this new technology." (Groff explains that water-based glues require more stringent temperature controls than the solvent-based ones, and small shoemakers can't afford the necessary equipment.)

So, the statement continues, on November 30 the company decided to "stop selling solvent-based footwear adhesives in Latin America and to concentrate on further developing and marketing water-based alternatives for larger industrial customers." For more information on inhalant abuse, the letter directs readers to an expert on the subject, listing a number that is no longer in service.

The letter also explains that Fuller provided only about one percent of the solvent-based adhesives sold in Latin America. Groff says the company's market share had begun to decline after the company switched the solvent in some of its adhesives to cyclohexane, a less toxic, but more expensive, ingredient. She stresses that several other manufacturers sell solvent-based glues in the region.

Fuller's annual report suggests that dropping the small-time shoemaker market in Latin America may not make much of a dent in the company's bottom line: Shoe glues are only a small part of a worldwide product line that includes a variety of adhesives, sealants, coatings, and paints. And the economic climate has not been favorable for Fuller in Latin America lately: According to the company's 1998 annual report, operating earnings in the region fell ten percent between 1997 and '98, from $15.7 million to $14.1 million. The report cites economic pressures and Hurricane Mitch as reasons for the falloff.

Harris and other industry watchers suspect that the change in policy may also have to do with recent shifts in Fuller management. During the past two years, Fuller's longtime president, Walter Kissling, and chairman, Tony Andersen, both retired, and in April 1998 an outside executive was brought in to head the firm. Groff says the personnel changes had nothing to do with the glue decision.

Scott Hendler, a lawyer in Austin, Texas, has another theory: He suspects the company pulled out of Latin America for fear of litigation. In 1996 he sued Fuller on behalf of the family of a Guatemalan child who died, allegedly as a result of glue addiction; the suit was dismissed after a judge found that it should be tried in Guatemala. Hendler says he is involved in "very serious discussions" about additional lawsuits.

All that said, Fuller's silent turnaround still seems surprising. After years of controversy, why not make a big public-relations splash trumpeting a humanitarian business move?

"One element that comes into play is that H.B. Fuller doesn't sell to the general public," offers Paul Maccabee, president of the Maccabee Group, a Minneapolis public-relations agency that has never done business with Fuller. "Ninety-nine percent of the Twin Cities public is completely ignorant of H.B. Fuller's conflicts and controversies." In such a situation, Maccabee surmises, it might be wise for a company to avoid stirring up new strife with a high-profile announcement.

Besides, Maccabee points out, when activists have fought a large corporation, "usually it's the advocacy group that goes to the media and says, 'We've won!'" Harris did send out a press release after learning of Fuller's policy change from Harper's. But attorney Hendler is still skeptical. "I don't think anything they say is gospel until I have independent validation," he says, disputing the company's statement that it hasn't sold solvent-based Resistol shoe glues in Honduras and Guatemala since 1992. "We checked it. They were available at least two to three years after that on store shelves," Hendler says. "They're masters of misinformation."

Harris says he's pleased with Fuller's decision, but years of battling the company--and taking care of addicted kids--make him cautious. He says he has written to Groff to ask whether Fuller will be licensing its solvent-based technology to other companies that might sell the glue in Latin America. (Groff says it won't.) He also plans to watch and see whether Resistol truly disappears from the streets when current supplies run out, something Fuller says should happen in a few months.

Until then, Harris says, he's not comfortable congratulating his longtime adversary. "They could have done this five years ago and saved all this mud that is now associated with their name," he declares. "I just don't trust them."

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