The glue that blinds

Published May 28, 2008


The young boy slumps against his crutches on a Point Road street corner, eyes misty and unfocused. His feet are twisted grotesquely, flipperlike, his skin grey from malnutrition.

He scans the throng, looking for his supplier. She will bring her covered basket, containing the glass bottles he needs to get him through another day. His skin itches with anxiety as he awaits his fix.

For just a couple of rands children living on the streets of Durban can block out the ugly reality they inhabit, and descend into a numbing parallel world for a little while; a world where there is no cold or hunger, strangers don't point and stare, and loneliness doesn't feature.

That's all it costs to buy a bottle of viscous orange glue from an "auntie" who makes her living peddling deformity and death as though she were a legitimate businesswoman

The children don't care that they will eventually be unable to walk and could suffer "sudden sniffing death", when their lungs seize due to the toxicity of the inhaled fumes. Today is all they can hope for, and tomorrow holds nothing to look forward to.

"My mother threw me away when I was a baby. I was found by social welfare, but there was no one who loved me," said 15-year-old Siphiso, who lives in the city centre.

"They put me with a foster mother, but she only took children for the grant. I ran to the streets when I was nine years old. The glue helps me when I am feeling sad that my mother did not want her own child.

"When I have some money I go to the aunties with the glue. They buy big drums and then put it in the bottles. They come on the taxis with the glue. The police do not worry because you can buy glue if you like. It is not against the law."

Research shows that glue is the most commonly abused inhalant in South Africa. Its use prevalent among street children, here and elsewhere. Currently three types of glue are readily available on the streets - Neoprene, SS Neoprene and an unnamed, dark orange glue that is the most toxic.

All three have a high level of a neurotoxic chemical called toluene. When inhaled, usually from a small glass bottle, often concealed in an empty milk or cold drink carton, the fumes are highly addictive, and the effects nearly instantaneous.

Frequent inhalation of the glue over an extended period causes irreversible brain damage. Street children outreach organisations, among which I-Care and Umthombo, stress that there is an urgent need for the sale of so-called "sniffing glue" to be strictly regulated in South Africa, as it now is in the UK and some Latin American countries.

"Sniffing glue results in peripheral neuropathy," explains Tom Hewitt, co-director of the Durban-based Umthombo foundation.

"It eats away at the brain, causing irreversible neurological damage. If the abuse continues for a long time, there is a loss of mobility in the hands and, more typically, feet, causing a duck-like gait, and eventual paralysis."

Hewitt and the other members of his organisation can list many tragedies they have seen unfold over the years. While part of the work they do entails helping children leave the streets and enter rehabilitation for addiction, it is a slow process and some don't make it.


South Africa currently has no legislation governing the sale of glue to minors, or its abuse as a drug. This scenario is common worldwide. Even when legislation exists, its enforcement tends to be lax.

Umthombo has links with the Undungu Street Children Advocacy Project in Nairobi, Kenya. The following tragic anecdote was reported recently on the Undungu website. It highlights the fact that legislation is not always the answer for addicted street children.

"David followed the routine practised by thousands of homeless children in Nairobi each day. He took out a handkerchief, dipped it into a tin of paint thinner, put it to his nose and inhaled deeply. Asked what he was doing, David replied: "Dinner". David was sniffing paint-thinner to suppress his hunger and ward off the cold.

Undungu has targeted glue-sniffing as a focus for its advocacy. The organisation has been supporting and rehabilitating street children for the past 30 years.

"Glue needs to be taken off the streets because of its health effects," said Joseph Nandwa, an Undungu field officer: "It leads to death, it leads to crime, it leads to a subculture, it gives street children a bad reputation that makes people not want to help them."

Part of the problem (in the Kenyan context) is that the laws on inhalants are enforced less strictly than those regulating other drugs, like marijuana (dagga). "Anyone who sells an inhalant to a minor, knowing that it will be abused, is subject to three years in prison. But there has not been a single recorded arrest," Nandwa said.

In First World Britain, an attempt has been made to enforce legislation. According to the Police National Legal Database, under the jurisdiction of the West Yorkshire Police, while solvent abuse per se is not illegal in that country, because many of the products abused are normal household products, it is illegal for a shopkeeper, or anyone else, "to sell any substance that will, or its fumes if inhaled will, cause intoxication to a person under the age of 18; or sell to anyone he believes is acting on their behalf."

Southern American countries are a lucrative market for unscrupulous chemical manufacturers, whose profit margins are considerably fattened by sales of toxic glue to addicts.

On the website "Nicaragua Living", a correspondent from that country wrote: "There is no real enforcement mechanism, nor do police usually bother with much of anything, unless it is to occasionally hassle a glue-seller in return for a bribe. In many areas there is a penalty for selling glue to minors, but it would be rare, if ever, that people are actually prosecuted for this."

When the magnitude of glue addiction became apparent in the early 1980s, some companies changed the formula of the shoe glue they were marketing, adding components like mustard oil to make it unattractive to abusers.

Testors, a British-based company that manufactured model-building glue, is considered a model of ethical conduct. They changed their formula years ago, despite initial negative impact on their profits.

The Fuller Company in the US did not share their scruples. They produce Resistol (many glue sniffers in Guatemala and Mexico are actually referred to as "Resistoleros"). Fuller refused for many years to introduce any noxious component to their solvent based adhesives.

In the 1980s Honduras tried to pass a law insisting that any adhesive either made or imported there would contain some form of mustard or other deterrent.

Fuller thwarted the move by launching a falsified advertising campaign, and reportedly "made arrangements" with key members of Honduran Congress.

Due to persistent lobbying by activists, they were eventually forced to amend their product. However, rumours abound that they simply began erecting front companies to market products like Resistol in Latin America.

In 2000 Fuller announced they were dropping toluene from their products and moving out of the Latin American market.


Most glue is now made in central America or China. This presents fresh problems, because the glue is marketed in bulk, and often the containers are not marked.

"In one sense having Fuller leave, if that is what happened, made it harder to fight the problem in Southern America, not easier. Shame only works in some countries," wrote one correspondent on the "Nicaragua Living" website.

If we are to save the lives of street children, and other sectors of society addicted to the inhalation of solvents, it is time our public protectors took the issue of legislation seriously. It could be your child whose heart seizes when he or she tries to get high.

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