THOUGH H. B. FULLER MAY WISH IT, RESISTOL ISSUE WON'T GO AWAY
By Marjorie Kelly
In Mexico City, 17-year-old Pedro was one of the lucky ones who got hospital treatment for his glue sniffing addiction. Not that it did him much good. Pedro today can barely walk, and he trembles constantly.
In San Salvador, Lara became pregnant at 16 but refused to stop sniffing glue. Her infant has trouble breathing and experiences night seizures.
In Guatemala, 14-year-old Joel Linares abused glue so long that it destroyed a kidney and apparently led to his death. The alleged cause: chronic exposure to toluene, a toxic substance found in some glues.
These stories--from "Multinational Monitor," a newsletter published by a corporate watchdog organization--are only a sampling of those that are out there. They're about children known on the street as "Resistoleros," users of Resistol, the shoe maker's glue manufactured by St. Paul based H. B. Fuller. Resistol is not the only glue these kids sniff, but it's one of them.
Can these kids be considered "consumers" of H. B. Fuller's products, if the company doesn't sell to them directly? Are they "stakeholders" to whom the company has a moral obligation? More pointedly: Did H. B. Fuller contribute to the death of Joel Linares--and perhaps more like him?
These will be more than academic questions, if two attorneys have their way. Scott Hendler of Austin, Texas, and Michael Brickman of Charleston, S.C., earlier this year filed a wrongful death suit against H. B. Fuller on behalf of Linares' mother. They withdrew the case in Texas in order to refile in Minnesota, and will decide by the end of the year whether to pursue it.
More ominously, they may also ask that it be expanded to a class action. If they were to succeed, the potential liability could be staggering, considering that glue-sniffing kids in Latin America number in the tens of thousands, perhaps tens of millions.
If the case comes to trial, media coverage promises to be deadly. Just recently--on Sunday, Nov. 26--the New York Times resurrected the Resistol issue in a story on the cover of its business section. The next day, H. B. Fuller stock fell $1.12 to $32.75, where it closed Friday. As much as H. B. Fuller might wish it, this issue is not one that's going away.
A key point the lawyers say they would raise in court is H. B. Fuller's "sincerity"--particularly, whether it followed through on the promise it made in July 1992 to discontinue Resistol sales "wherever it is being misused."
The company declined to comment last week.
But according to the Times, by October 1992 a coalition opposing the sale of the glue in Central America learned that Fuller had not stopped selling Resistol there. It no longer sold to retailers and small-scale users in Honduras and Guatemala, but it did sell large tubs and barrels to industrial customers in those countries, and to a broader list of commercial and industrial users in neighboring countries.
To its credit, H. B. Fuller did change the formula of its industrial glue in Central America recently, replacing toluene with cyclohexane--a substance less prone to abuse. The changeover will be completed at the end of 1995. Rick Kingston, senior clinical toxicologist with the Minnesota Regional Poison Center, confirms that the new substance is less attractive to inhale.
In the end, technical details like these may be irrelevant. An estimated 40 million to 50 million street children live in Latin America, and many of them are sick and dying from inhalant abuse. And rightly or wrongly, they seem inextricably connected to H. B. Fuller. Like a rich man finding an orphan abandoned at his doorstep, the company has no choice but to deal with them.
Did H. B. Fuller "cause" their suffering? I'd say no.
Does it have a moral obligation to help them? I'd say yes.
Marjorie Kelly is cofounder and publisher of Business Ethics,
52 S. 10th St., Suite 110, Minneapolis, MN 55403.