Development & Aid, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

CHILDREN-VENEZUELA: “Glue Sniffers” at the Core of a Dilemma

Estrella Gutierrez

CARACAS, Jul 14 1998 (IPS) - The “glue sniffer” children of Venezuela have unleashed controversy over the inclusion of an additive in these cements to put an end to the increasing solvent abuse.

“Pah, I’ll get it anyway and if I can’t I’ll get something else” said 12 year old Frank, speaking unperturbed to IPS in an empty lot near Venezuela Place in Caracas.

Frank spends his nights here, calming his desperation by inhaling glue he buys from a retailer who packages the product for child addicts.

Fernando Pereira, director of the non governmental children’s organisation Community Centres for Learning (Cecodap) was pleased to hear the problem would be getting the attention it deserves, but called for more integral solutions to avoid pushing the children onto harder drugs like crack cocaine.

According to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the number of children and adolescents abusing adhesives worldwide has taken on dramatic proportions in recent years, with more than 70 percent of all street children doing so.

The UNICEF State of the World’s Children report in 1994 reported there are more than 60 million children at risk on the streets of the world.

In Venezuela, the number of “at risk” or abandonned children is a recent and alarmingly fast-growing problem, which has grown geometrically in the last six years with social disintegration as real incomes have plummeted.

Cecodap and other private organisations say there are no reliable figures on street children – those who have lost all family links and are totally abandonned – but they state that there are more than 500 such youngsters in the area of the Sabana Grande de Caracas boulevard alone.

“Huelepega” (Glue Sniffer) is the title of a catchy song in honour of these children by the Dominican duo Sandy and Papo, mixing technosalsa with strokes of rap along the Caribbean coast, calling on the people of Venezuela to offer a helping hand to the youngsters.

The Rotary Club and other welfare entities launched a campaign in an effort to make the adhesives and other chemical products containing toluene and cyclohexane – the addictive elements – into restricted drugs.

Nicolas Briceno, co-ordinator of the Rotarians “Glue Sniffer” Children Project, said that as abandonned children are known to become dependent on solvents, it is incomprehensible that the two addictive substances should continue to be sold freely to any public and from any shop.

A study by the Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Research concluded the adhesives inhaled damage the memory, central nervous system, bone marrow, cognitive, and optical and auditory capacity, while creating respiratory insufficiency.

The controversy was first awakened when the government was told it shouls force the adhesive producers to add mustard seed oil to the product – this product creates symptoms which prevent it being used as an inhalant and therefore impede addiction.

Meanwhile, the Association of Chemical Industrialists replied the psychosocial problem of the thousands of glue sniffing children in the streets of Venezuela should be dealt with in an integral manner, going to the root of the matter and not merely by applying a doubtful palliative which would also affect those legitimately working with these adhesives.

“The roots of the problem are deep and structural and are related to the lack of opportunities, violence, leaving homr and the lack of resources,” said head of the chemical group, Hernan Morales.

The industrialists stated they would not be opposed to including any substance which makes the glue repellent for the children, but reject the addition of mustard as this would adversely affect the 100,000 workers in footwear and other sectors.

The active ingredient of mustard seed or the chemical compound allyl isothiocyanate is highly toxic, according to the industrialists.

They said its pentrating and irritating smell has already led to its use being rejected in countries which had started to add it, like Brazil, or were thinking of doing so, Honduras.

The Panamerican Health Organisation had also scorned its use due to the noxious effects on people exposed to it, and according to the producers, the “glue traffickers” would simply sidestep the measure by importing mustard-free glues.

Morales and Briceno agreed the sale of adhesives to under 18’s must be banned, restricting the number of outlets handling bulk quantities and retailing the products, penalising those found guilty of “repackaging” the product and selling to the child addicts.

Hellen Ruiz, coordinator of the treatment area of the State National Children’s Institute, which cares for some 200 child solvents and illegal drug addicts in special hostels, said best idea would be the addition of a substance which would not affect those working with the product, but which would repel those inhaling it.

However, although she denied being an expert on the issue, Ruiz said the worst problem is the consumption of crack and other substances included under the drug law, which cause irreversible effects on the children.

The Cedocap director said it must be taken into account that they are dealing here with physically and psychologically destroyed children and addicts with withdrawal symptoms, who cannot be dealt with simply by reductionist schemes.

Behind each ill child there is an ill family and an ill society, said Pereira, and the worst that could happen would be to fall into “privatising the problem.”

Frank, unenthusiastically skimmed over just such a story to IPS. He spoke about his mother: “she was very good, eh, she loved me loads, but we suffered a lot of hunger together, me and my four brothers and sisters, even when I helped her.”

But when she brought a man back to the shack they lived in on a steep hillside in western Caracas, he began to deal out the beatings “for nothing, but mostly when he got drunk,” until Frank stopped going back.

Frank has been living on the streets for more than a year, surviving by begging “because I’m no thief, I’m decent” resorting to an empty drinks can with glue inside as the best form of getting “out of it” he knows.

He had no idea there was a song for children like him by a famous group, and the music awakens the interest of his group of four “colleagues,” although they are not so interested in the lyrics which say “get up glue sniffer…I dedicate this song to you.”

“You walk through the streets of the world/ as though you were a tramp/ running at a thousand per second,” says the Sandy and Papo song, played on many local radio stations.

“Life, the world, the city, the neighbourhood/ the people who live there and what goes on inside/ death, robberies and without details/ the forces of evil ruling the street,” says another part of the Dominican technomerengue, before calling on “the people of Venezuela to reach out their hands, give them love and happiness.”

“Children who don’t know what food is/ who spend the day looking for glue/ who have no work and don’t go to school,” sing Sandy and Papo, concluding there are “glue sniffing children in dead end streets/ looking for a way to live on the street/ and sniffing glue to survive/ in their world/ their world of fantasy.”

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