Colorado History

Denver Chemist's Solution for Stopping Glue Sniffers


That was Lewis Emanuel Trenner’s “Aha!” moment. He usually kept a tape recorder next to his bed in order to capture random thoughts that came to him during the night, and his daughter Anita, who was a high-school student in 1965, still recalls her father shouting “Horseradish!” After learning about Juvenile Court Judge Ted Rubin’s work with glue-sniffing kids, Trenner, a Denver-based plastics chemist, had approached Rubin with a vow. “My profession created this problem you’re trying to solve,” he told the judge in an accent that still displayed a trace of an early childhood spent in England. “I volunteer to help you find an additive,” Trenner continued, promising to come up with something that would make sniffing glue less pleasant.

Then came his spontaneous thought of horseradish: Allyl isothiocyanate, a clear-to-yellowish liquid, is found naturally in horseradish, wasabi, radishes and mustard. While the chemical, also known as “mustard oil,” has been used as a food additive, it’s also had martial applications.

As detailed in this week's cover story, "The Sniff Test," the hobby industry had been searching since the early ’60s for a way to make its model-airplane glues unappealing to glue sniffers. A report prepared for the industry in December 1962 listed allyl isothiocyanate alongside dozens of other potential additives. “Many of these chemicals fall into the category of chemical-warfare agents,” the report acknowledged.

Although it wanted to stop the abuse of its glues, the industry also had concerns about lawsuits and the loss in sales that such an additive might lead to. A 1963 article in the journal Sociology and Social Research quoted one industry legal consultant as saying: “We would be happy to use an additive if someone would tell us what to add that would be safe and that doesn’t drive the family out of the house because of the smell.”

After Trenner’s late-night brainstorm, Rubin arranged a meeting in his judge’s chambers between the chemist and members of the Hobby Industry Association of America. Trenner offered sniffs of allyl isothiocyanate, which causes tears and inflammation of the corneas, as well as “severe irritation of the nostrils.”

In the late ’60s, the Testor Corporation did indeed introduce “mustard oil” into its glues.

Paul Thompson, who today is the assistant director of Peer 1, tried sniffing plastic cement spiked with allyl isothiocyanate. “It would almost gag you,” he recalls. “To keep whiffing it, you would have to go through a lot to get a buzz; it made you not want to get that.”

By that time, glue sniffing had even come to the attention of President Richard Nixon, who would declare a “war on drugs” in 1971. In 1969, Nixon commended Charles D. Miller, the president and chief executive of the Testor Corporation, for making glue sniffing as offensive as possible by means of chemical warfare.

Was Trenner responsible for Testor adding the chemical? RPM International Inc., which now owns the Testor Corporation, declined to comment. Trenner died in 2000 at the age of 88, after a prolonged battle with Alzheimer’s disease. “He desperately wanted to leave some good in this world, and this was but one of his attempts,” says his daughter.

According to Anita Trenner, her father also devised a black version of the Hula-Hoop (which Trenner called a “Zorro Hoop”) in Philadelphia, prior to manufacturer Wham-O introducing its version. He also patented a single-use hypodermic syringe in 1990, hoping to prevent the transmission of AIDS by injection drug users sharing syringes.

But recognition for those innovations eluded Trenner, as well.  
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