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Human olfaction at the intersection of language, culture and biology
22-23 June 2017
Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics Nijmegen, the Netherlands

There is a long tradition of under-estimating the sense of smell, and the information it provides. This long-standing picture of olfaction is being challenged today from a variety of directions. Previous estimates held that humans could only distinguish 10,000 odors, but this estimate has been revised to more than 1,000,000,000,000. Great strides have also been made in unlocking the perceptual bases of olfactory discrimination and categorization. Researchers are now able to predict both behavioral and neural activity in response to novel odors. Cross-cultural data from communities across the globe open up yet new vistas. Speakers of Jahai, Maniq, Seri, and others, have elaborate dedicated odor lexicons and name smells with apparent ease. Smell language is tightly connected with cultural practices, be it among speakers of olfactory languages, or within expert populations in the West. Specialist communities of wine experts and herb vendors help elucidate the important role experience can play on our olfactory sense, while special populations such as synesthetes and anosmics challenge our understanding further.

This conference brings together world-leading scientists and scholars to explore human olfaction from an interdisciplinary perspective.

Funded by: NWO The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research

Hosted by: Centre for Language Studies, Radboud University, Nijmegen, The Netherlands & Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, The Netherlands



9:00  Welcome and Introduction ASIFA MAJID
9:15  Olfactory Language lightning session Discussant BARRY SMITH


10:45  Political aromatics, fragrant fame & the classification of odors in early India JAMES MCHUGH
11:30  Functions of the olfactory system – What can be learned from people without a sense of smell THOMAS HUMMEL

12:15 LUNCH

1:45 Odor-evoked episodic memory JANE PLAILLY
2:30 Olfactory Memory lightning session Discussant MARIA LARSSON


4:00 Using an algorithm that predicts odor similarity from odor structure in order to explore
the boundaries of olfactory stimulus space
4:45 – 6:30 Posters & Drinks
7:00 Conference Dinner RESTAURANT MI BARRIO


9:00 Perception as seen through the nose ANDREAS KELLER
9:45 Odor consciousness and awareness lightning session Discussant KEITH WILSON


11:15 Olfactory artists as researchers
Contemporary art as a realm for experiments in aromatic knowledge JIM DROBNICK

12:00 LUNCH

1:30 Cross-cultural approaches to chemical communication in humans – New perspectives

2:15 Crossmodal lightning session Discussant JOHAN LUNDSTRÖM


3:45 Can we categorise smells using sounds and colours? OPHELIA DEROY & YASMINA JRAISSATI
4:30 The evolutionary tuning of human olfaction and the sensory inequities of the
modern world 

5:15 – 5:30 CLOSING REMARKS 

Political aromatics, fragrant fame, and the classification of odors in early India

Sanskrit texts from ancient and medieval India reveal a scholarly obsession with classification and analysis. This provides us with a detailed record of reflection on smell from a pre-modern, non-western, and highly literate culture—and from a culture where people paid considerable attention to odors and perfumery. In this talk I shall consider several such early Indian understandings of smell. Philosophical texts grappled with how to classify smell, starting with an extensive typology of odors and eventually settling on a very simple one. Perfumery texts classify aromatics using a metaphor of statecraft. Literary texts associate odors, not with memory, but with formidable affective powers. I shall also discuss some of my new discoveries on how “wine talk” is represented in early Indic literary sources. I shall then consider whether these various representations of odor informed or presuppose understandings of smell in other genres and contexts. Building on all these case studies, I also discuss some general methodological problems we encounter in dealing with ancient texts on odors and aromatics. I also consider how we might go about historicizing Indian ideas about odor, and what we might hope to learn by doing so.

June 22nd | 10.45 am

Functions of the olfactory system – what can be learned from people without a sense of smell

Isolated congenital anosmia (ICA) is characterized by the lack of the sense of smell since birth in otherwise healthy people. Although this phenomenon is known among clinicians, there is only little knowledge about how these people cope with this serious handicap. Questionnaires of 32 patients with ICA (aged 18-46 years) were analyzed. ICA was diagnosed using detailed medical history, psychophysical examination, electrophysical measurements, and magnetic resonance imaging. 36 healthy participants (aged 18-50 years) served as controls.  The smell disorder was noted first at the age of 11 years; mean age at the medical diagnosis was 20 years. About one-third of the patients avoid talking about the disorder. If they could, many of them would like to smell food (35%), perfume (23%), their spouse (16%), or “nature” (12%).  Both groups did not differ significantly in weight, height, Body Mass Index, or eating behavior. ICA- patients reported more household accidents than healthy controls. ICA-patients also reported more worries about social situations than controls.  There was no significant difference between both groups in the partnership status or satisfaction with their partnership. However, ICA-patients reported to have had significantly less sexual partners than controls.  Finally, ICA-patients exhibited higher scores in the Depression Inventory compared to controls. Overall differences between the two groups are relatively subtle. ICA seems to be a handicap patients can cope with very well.

June 22nd | 11.30 am

Odor-evoked episodic memory 

Human episodic memory is the long-term memory process that enables one to mentally and consciously relive specific, personal events from the past. Odors are well known to be particularly powerful memory cues in humans. I will present a project that aims at investigating the cognitive processes and the neural bases of odor-evoked episodic retrieval in humans. A novel behavioral task has been designed to study in a controlled way the memory of complex episodes comprising unfamiliar odors (What), localized spatially (Where), within a visual context (Which context). From this approach, we demonstrate that the episodic retrieval is mainly based on recollection processes, and that emotion carried by odors, whatever its valence, promotes accurate episodic retrieval. Behavioral data also suggest that the incorporation of this task into dream report does not influence the subsequent memory of this task (Plailly et al in preparation). Moreover, fMRI data suggest that episodic odor memory is underpinned by a distributed network and modularity analyses show that neural interactions within this network depends on memory accuracy, with the piriform cortex being a crucial node.

June 22nd | 01.45 pm

Using an algorithm that predicts odor similarity from odor structure in order to explore the boundaries of olfactory stimulus space

Several studies have linked physicochemical properties to discrete perceptual properties of monomolecules. The real olfactory world, however, is made not of monomolecules, but rather of molecular mixtures. To predict how such complex odor mixtures might smell based on their structure alone, in three separate experiments we asked 139 subjects to rate the pairwise perceptual similarity of 64 odorant-mixtures ranging in size from 4 to 43 monomolecular components. We then tested alternative models to link odorant-mixture structure to odorant-mixture perceptual similarity. Whereas a model that considered each monomolecular component of a mixture separately provided a poor prediction of mixture similarity, a model that represented the mixture as a single structural vector provided consistent correlations between predicted and actual perceptual similarity (r>0.49, p<0.001). An optimized version of this model yielded a correlation of r = 0.85 (p<0.001) between predicted and actual mixture similarity. In other words, we developed an algorithm that can look at the molecular structure of two novel odorant-mixtures, and predict their ensuing perceptual similarity. This published algorithm was developed and tested under conditions of equated perceptual intensity of all mixture components. Here I will first present an extension of this effort, adding a factor that allows prediction on mixtures with components of varying intensities, with marginal reductions in performance (r=0.67, p<0.001). I will then demonstrate how this algorithm provides for a prediction on the number of olfactory perceptual dimensions, and on the total number of odorants humans can discriminate, questions that have recently captured the attention of olfaction research.

June 22nd | 04.00 pm

Perception as seen through the nose

Philosophy of perception has historically been focused almost exclusively on visual perception. This visuocentrism has distorted our understanding of what perception is.  One of the major differences between olfaction and vision is that the olfactory perceptual space is much more complex than the perceptual color space. In contrast, the spatial structure of olfactory perception is severely impoverished compared to other modalities. A consequence of this impoverished spatial structure is that object-based accounts of perception cannot be applied to olfaction; the common criteria for objecthood in vision fail to pick out olfactory objects. Odor perception is not the perception of objects but of “object-less” perceptual properties. Another consequential difference is that emotional processes have privileged access to olfactory information whereas the connection between olfaction and analytic systems is weak. The strong connection between olfaction and emotional processes reflects a shared evolutionary history and neuroanatomy. Perceptual systems coevolved with the cognitive systems that process perceptual information, thereby individually shaping each connection between perceptual and cognitive processes. These and other differences between vision and olfaction dramatically illustrate that conclusions from the study of one modality do not generalize to other modalities. An olfaction-based philosophy of perception would be very different from the familiar version based on visual perception.

June 23nd | 9.00 am

Olfactory artists as researchers: Contemporary art as a realm for experiments in aromatic knowledge 

Artists engaging with olfaction typically occupy several roles. Many have experience as chemists, scientists, designers, anthropologists and perfumers besides being trained in art. Such interdisciplinarity is strategic, for it helps to be able to draw from a range of fields to build a sufficient knowledge base about the sense of smell. Unlike modernist artists who restricted themselves to a single medium in order to concentrate on its particular characteristics, contemporary artists adopt an array of materials, media and methods in order to conduct their work about olfaction, such as synthesizing scents, utilizing new smell technologies, collaborating in teams, and directly involving the noses and participation of visitors.
This talk considers how olfactory artists engage the practice of the artist-researcher. What does it mean to employ art as a method of investigation? How can olfactory art stimulate conscious attention to smell’s significance in experience and society? Given the development of olfactory art as a genre of artistic practice, I will discuss how works featuring scent function in a hybrid way to perform both as aesthetic experiences and as quasi-experiments in audience reception. By examining recent olfactory artworks, this talk explores how artists generate knowledge about the potential and implications of smell.

June 23nd | 11.15 am

Cross-cultural approaches to chemical communication in humans: new perspectives

Social communication is one of the major functions of olfaction, but many aspects of this function remain a mystery in humans. Body odors appear to be extremely important in human interpersonal relationships, as shown by the amount of energy we spend every day to control our own “olfactory image” but also by the serious consequences of olfactory loss on the quality of social interactions. In this talk, I will try to build bridges between two areas of research, which are the study of inter-individual (and more specifically, cultural) differences in human olfaction and the study of social communication through body odors. I will present some of my work about the role of human body odors in person perception and human attractiveness (single-culture approach) and draw a picture of the current knowledge and gaps in this area. Then, I will present a set of studies using cross-cultural approaches to odor-related feelings and attention to relevant odors of our environment, with a particular focus on aspects related with people’s odor. Finally, my aim will be to draw some perspectives of research combining the two approaches presented above, and to identify specific directions where cross-cultural comparisons could usefully complement our understanding of how body odors influence human social interactions.

June 23nd | 1.30 pm

Can we categorise smells using sounds and colours?

Several streams of research have shown that individuals consistently pair certain smells with specific auditory or visual dimensions, for instance pitch or colour : The smell of caramel is associated to low pitch sounds, and bergamot smell to orange or yellow shades. What is not clear however is whether these shared correspondences have a communicative value in everyday contexts, and whether some work better than others and in which contexts. Certainly using a correspondence seem to have less communicative value too that providing a literal description of an olfactory attribute, or naming the source of the smell, which raises an even more important question : Why should we even choose to resort to correspondence to communicate about smells? This talk will cast new lights on both the empirical and theoretical aspects of these questions.

June 23nd | 03.45 pm

The evolutionary tuning of human olfaction and the sensory inequities of the modern world 

Olfaction plays a critical role in gathering information about the physical and social environments. Our modern noses are the result of a long process of adaptation to varying ecological settings in evolutionary history. But, how well do our noses function in modern settings? The focus of this talk is to present data on the evolutionary ecological parameters that tuned olfaction within the genus Homo and also to explore how olfaction operates today. The first part explores the family evolutionary situation through reconstructed noses of extinct relatives in the genus Homo (Neandertal and Denisova). Do members of the genus share an olfactory repertoire that reflects our diverse global adaptations or do humans have a specific repertoire due to our unique subsistence strategies. The second part of the talk looks to the future of smell by exploring how modern lifestyles and anthropogenic environmental change are damaging our smell-ability. What are we losing when we lose our sense of smell and are some at greater risk than others? Losing the sense of smell results in physical, mental and social problems. In modern stratified societies, not everyone has equal access to positive smell-scapes and that results in sensory inequities. We are the long tail of an evolutionary process that is currently in jeopardy.

June 23nd | 04.30 pm

In the Lightning Sessions, researchers from Meaning Culture and Cognition will present their work in 5 minute presentations. These will be followed by a discussion led by the discussant.

June 22nd | 9:15 am

Structure of odor lexicons as a window into olfactory perception

We investigated the olfactory lexicons of Maniq and Thai to shed light on olfactory perception. Examining smell term similarity we discovered both lexicons are structured according to pleasantness, yet for each language there were further parameters of importance, reflecting the cultural specificity of olfactory experiences in each society.
Ewelina Wnuk1,2, Rujiwan Laophairoj3, Asifa Majid1,2 Radboud University1, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics2, Ubon Ratchathani University3

Smell and taste terms in Huehuetla Tepehua

This study looks at smell and taste ideophones in Huehuetla Tepehua and compares them with ideophones from the same domains in related Totonac-Tepehua languages. Similar cognate terms are observed in the taste domain, but much more variation is observed in individual languages within the olfactory domain.
Carolyn O’Meara1,2, Susan Smythe Kung3, Asifa Majid1,4 Radboud University1, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México2, University of Texas at Austin3, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics4

Cultural diversity in the language and discourse of olfaction: a comparative study of Cha’palaa, Imbabura Quechua and English

This study compares a language with a previously unattested type of “smell classifier”, the Cha’palaa language of Ecuador, to two other languages with less complex smell terms, Imbabura Quechua and English, finding that in addition to having more complex smell terms, speakers of Cha’palaa also talk about smell more frequently than speakers of the other languages.
Simeon Floyd1,2,3, Asifa Majid2,3  Universidad San Francisco de Quito1, Radboud University2, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics3

Flavor and smell language of wine experts, coffee experts and novices

In this talk I will show the results of an experiment comparing wine experts, coffee experts, and novices on their descriptions of the smell and taste of wines and coffees, and common smells and basic tastes. Are experts better at describing smells and flavours?
Ilja Croijmans1, Asifa Majid1,2 Radboud University1, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics2

Early uses of smell-related language

How does the ability to talk about smell develop in first language learners? I report on an ongoing investigation into the acquisition of the word smell in English. Child-caregiver interaction gives us insight into how we talk about smell in spontaneous conversation, as well as into questions of variation and universality in smell-related language.
Lila San Roque Radboud University, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

June 22nd | 2:30 pm

Respiration mode during consolidation modulates episodic odor memory

Recent studies have demonstrated that in both human and non-human animals the mode of respiration affects a range of cognitive functions such as memory. Here we extend these findings by demonstrating that breathing through your nose or mouth differently affects memory consolidation.
Artin Arshamian1,2, Asifa Majid2,3, Behzad Iravani1, Johan Lundström1 Karolinska Institutet1, Radboud University2, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics3

Memory for wines and smells in wine experts and novices

Experts in various domains have been shown to have a better memory for stimuli in their domain of expertise than novices. In this talk I will show that similar to experts in other domains, wine experts also have a better memory for the smell of wines than novices, and that their ability is unrelated to their ability to describe wines.
Ilja Croijmans1, Artin Arshamian1,3, Laura J. Speed1, Asifa Majid1,2 Radboud University1, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics2, Karolinska Institutet3

Embodiment of odor and sound words

Do we mentally simulate olfactory information when comprehending odor-related words? We combined real odors with odor-related words and assessed the effect in perceptual ratings and measures of memory. Overall, results suggest fundamental differences in how the meaning of odor and sound words is represented.
Laura J. Speed1, Asifa Majid1,2 Radboud University1, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics2

Visual memory is not universally privileged in humans

Human visual recognition memory is believed to be superior to recognition memory in other modalities. However, this notion is based on Western populations were vision holds a privileged position. Here we show that culture-specific sensory preoccupations can have profound consequences on memory.
Artin Arshamian1,2, Ewelina Wnuk2,3, Asifa Majid2,3 Karolinska Institutet1,Radboud University2, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics3

June 23rd | 9:45 am

Multimodal mental imagery of wine experts and novices

The ability to perceive something without the stimulus being physically present, i.e., imagery, has been investigated in wine experts, while it potentially plays an important role in their expertise. The results of the study presented in this talk suggest wine experts have more vivid imagery than novices for multisensory aspects of wine, including the appearance, smell and flavour of wine, but not for olfactory imagery in general.
Ilja Croijmans1, Artin Arshamian2, Laura J. Speed1, Asifa Majid1,3 Radboud University1, Karolinska Institutet2, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics3

Iranian Herbalists, but not Cooks, are Better at Naming Odors than Lay people

Studies have demonstrated an improved ability in describing odors among experts preoccupied with odors in their everyday profession. In this study, we ask which aspect of expertise improves odor naming ability. We will discuss the effect of expertise and experience on odor naming among Iranian herbalists and cooks.
Afrooz Rafiee1, Marisa Casillas2, Asifa Majid1,2 Radboud University1, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics2

Seri odor awareness and changing smellscape

The Seri language, an isolate spoken in northwestern Mexico, has an elaborate set of olfactory verbs. Here we present the role odors played in traditional Seri life, as well as recent changes in the Seri smellscape and related cultural practices that have resulted from a shift away from a hunter-gatherer-fisher way of life and toward sedentarism.
Carolyn O’Meara1,2, Asifa Majid1,3 Radboud University1, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México2, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics3

Odor awareness in a mobile hunter-gatherer culture

The Maniq are a small group of mobile hunter-gatherers from southern Thailand. They are preoccupied with smell in their daily life and attend to it in a wide variety of contexts. In this talk, I present an overview of the role of smell for the Maniq, from mundane situations related to their basic subsistence, to the sphere of indigenous ritual and beliefs.
Ewelina Wnuk, Asifa Majid Radboud University, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

Cultural diversity and sensory experience in dreams: comparing Andean and European contexts

While studies of sensory experience in dreams have focused mainly on English, in societies such as Imbabura Quechua speaking communities of Ecuador, sharing and interpreting dreams play an important role. This study asks what role cultural diversity plays in sensory experience in dreams through the innovative methodological adaptation of a dream survey to the context of an unwritten minority language.
Simeon Floyd1,2,3, Asifa Majid2,3 Universidad San Francisco de Quito1, Radboud University2, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics3

June 23rd | 2:15 pm

Cross-modal associations with odor across development

We investigated the developmental trajectory of crossmodal associations with odors and color, shape, texture and pitch. Overall, a greater number of associations were observed the older the participant was. This suggests crossmodal associations with odor emerge throughout development and get stronger with age.
Laura J. Speed1, Asifa Majid1,2 Radboud University1, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics2

Odor-color associations differ with verbal descriptors for odors: A comparison of three linguistically diverse groups

People appear to have systematic associations between odors and colors. To investigate whether odors are related to colors through the use of odor labels, we studied odor-color associations in three languages that describe odors differently. Results suggest that language is indeed involved: the associations between odors and colors differed for different odor descriptions.
Josje M. de Valk1, Ewelina Wnuk1,2, John L. A. Huisman1, Asifa Majid1,2 Radboud University1, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics2

Odor-temperature associations across cultures

Although odor and temperature are clearly linked in physiology and culture, we don’t know whether people make consistent temperature associations for everyday odors and, if so, what determines them. In this first empirical cross-cultural exploration, we show that odor-temperature associations are not universal and that they may be shaped by cultural beliefs.
Ewelina Wnuk1,2, Josje M. de Valk1, John L. A. Huisman1, Asifa Majid1,2 Radboud University1, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics2

Taste-colour associations in Turkish and Dutch

Through one linguistic and one non-linguistic experiment, we show that cross-modal associations – in this case taste-colour associations – can vary between different types of input stimuli.
John L. A. Huisman1, Parla Buyruk2, Simge Celik1, Asifa Majid1,3 Radboud University1, University of California San Diego2, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics3

Superior olfactory language and cognition in odor-color synaesthesia

We investigated odor language and cognition in odor-color synaesthetes, individuals who automatically perceive colors upon smelling odors. Synaesthetes were better at naming odors and better at discriminating between odors than controls participants. We suggest synaesthetic associations to odor strengthen odor-related concepts.
Laura J. Speed1, Asifa Majid1,2 Radboud University1, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics2


Pamela Baess, Ryan Hacklander, Clara Hellweg & Christina Bermeitinger
» Is attentional control in the attentional blink really modulated by odor?

Cecilia Bembibre & Matija Strlič
» A nose for books: a new tool to describe heritage smells

Natalie Bouchard
» Our environment is a world of stories: narrative fragments of the Montreal smellscape

Natalie Bouchard
» Our environment is a world of stories: smellcity 01

Jasper de Groot
» Meta-analyses on human fear chemosignaling

Victor Fraigneau
» Olfactory architecture: On the practical and theoretical potentials of the sense of smell in contemporary architecture

Garmt Dijksterhuis & Per Moller
» Olfactory transmission: what’s needed and what’s possible?

Ryan P. Hackländer & Christina Bermeitinger
» Affective congruence in olfactory context dependent memory

Anna Harris
» Hearing the analogy: An ethnographic study of how doctors learn new sensory vocabularies

Roza Kamiloglu, Gun Semin, & Monique Smeets
» Human body odors as emotion elicitors: category or valence based effects?

Emanuela Maggioni & Marianna Obrist
» Human olfaction: A perspective from human-computer interaction

Lauryn Mannigel
» Love Sweat Love: Affective and perceptual experience of human perspiration in Amsterdam

Kate McLean
» Olfacto-visual communication

Devendra Meena, Daniel J. M. Crouch, Bruce Winney, Katarzyna Hutnik, Tammy Day & Walter Bodmer
» Genome-wide association study on sense of smell within the People of the British Isles

Claus Noppeney & Nada Endrissat 
» In search of meaning: How perfume blogs culturalize scent

Thomas O’Rourke
» An olfactory substrate for reference in language

Elbrich Postma, Johanna Reichert, Paul Smeets, Wilbert Boek, Kees de Graaf, Veronika Schöpf, & Sanne Boesveldt
» How severity of olfactory deficits is reflected in functional brain networks – an fMRI study

Rea Rodriguez-Raecke, Helene M Loos, Rik Sijben, Marco Singer, Jonathan Beauchamp, Andrea Buettner & Jessica Freiher
» Odor discrimination learning using a masked aversive odor

Sissel Tolaas
»  NASALO_dictionary
Smell is information purpose communication – An attempt to generate language in relation to smells and the process of smelling

Tristram Wyatt
» Sexing up human pheromones: How a corporation created a myth and left a trail of false positives paved by positive publication bias


The conference takes place at the Max Plank Institute for Pycholinguistics Nijmegen. The closest airport to Nijmegen is Schiphol with direct trains to Nijmegen every half hour or so. Depending on your point of origin you may alternatively find convenient international flights into Eindhoven or Weeze airports, which also have reasonably good bus/train connections. More specific directions to the venue can be found here.


There are several hotels and bed & breakfasts in Nijmegen, for example: Bed & Breakfast de Prince, Hotel Credible, Amrâth Hotel Belvoir, and Van der Valk Hotel in Nijmegen Lent (Nijmegen Lent is outside the city center, but it is well connected by train and bus; the journey to the conference venue is approximately 30 minutes, see the online public transport journey planner). Further accommodation suggestions can be found here.


Academic €100 | Student and Public €50 | Industry €250

The conference dinner will take place on Thursday June 22nd at Restaurant Mi Barrio. Costs will be €30 on top of the conference fee.

Registration fee waivers for undergraduate and graduate students are available. Please indicate your interest in a registration fee waiver when submitting your abstract. Waivers will be distributed at the discretion of the scientific organisers during abstract review. If you are awarded a registration fee waiver you will be notified after the abstract review has been completed and asked to confirm your acceptance.

Registration deadline was June 8th. Registration is now closed.

A confirmation email will be sent to your email address after registration. This email will also contain payment details. Bank details are displayed below.

Account name: Stg. KU –Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen FDL
Address: Postbus 9103, 6500 HD, NIJMEGEN, the Netherlands
IBAN: NL62INGB0002333985
Specification: 2380520

If you have further questions please email 

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