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July 13, 2018

'The smell hits you like a huge wall': How a prankster's stinky spray found a nobler use in medical training

Daily Briefing

    It's marketed to pranksters as a "power-packed, super-concentrated liquid" that smells of "hints of dead animal and fresh poo"—but this stinky spray has found new life in medical training, helping providers learn to maintain their calm and professionalism around foul human odors, Katherine Ellen Foley reports for Quartz.

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    The origin of a very stinky spray

    Allen Wittman was still in high school when he invented the foul spray that would later become known as "Liquid Ass." He tested it by dumping 4 ounces onto a radiator near a school gym during a basketball game.

    By halftime, the school had opened the doors to air out the stench—even though it was snowing outside, Foley reports.

    Later, after he became an engineer, Wittman met Andrew Masters at work. They bonded over their shared love of practical jokes and decided to pull out some of Wittman's old spray during an office get-together—"effectively ruining it," Foley reports.

    The pair eventually decided to change careers and make a living off selling Wittman's product.

    A prankster staple finds a 'more noble pursuit'

    While the product quickly gained a following among "pranksters eager to cause a little smelly mayhem," it also has appealed to "customers with more noble pursuits," Foley writes: It's ordered routinely by hospitals, researchers, and programs that train medical professionals.

    According to Foley, the spray so closely resembles the odor of the human colon that it's ideal for training medical responders to stay focused and professional during cases that involve foul odors.

    Kata Conde, an assistant nursing professor at MidAmerica Nazarene University who worked as a nurse for 30 years before becoming an instructor, uses Wittman's spray in a simulation lab for her students. The product was first recommended to her by another nursing instructor at a professional conference.

    Foley reports that Conde uses the spray in teaching scenarios where a patient has soiled themselves getting out of a hospital bed. According to Conde, it's the only product that accurately replicates the smells from human bowels.

    "The smell hits you like a huge wall," Conde said. "It's something people react to when they first experience it. We see all kinds of faces."

    Patients might feel embarrassed if they saw their real-life providers make such faces, so in order to pass the simulation, students have to show they can remain professional while providing adequate care, Foley reports.

    The product is also helpful for teaching bowel surgeries, such as colostomies, which require surgeons to divert part of the large intestine through a hole in the abdomen, Foley writes.

    Wittman and Masters said they've also received orders for the spray from paramedics, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and Pocket Nurse, a medical supply company. The spray also has been used in military training operations, according to Foley.

    Researching disgust

    Wittman's spray also has helped researchers learn more about disgust, "a universal emotion ingrained into us by years of evolution," Foley writes.

    David Pizarro a philosopher and psychologist based at Cornell University, told New Scientist, "Before we had developed any theory of disease, disgust prevented us from contagion."

    With a modern understanding of disease, disgust is less useful—though it still shapes human behavior, Foley reports.

    To understand how disgust influences humans' actions, a group of researchers asked people to complete questionnaires about their feelings on bowel diseases and sexually transmitted infections. Then, participants answered the questionnaires again in a room that had been sprayed with Wittman's product.

    In rooms containing the odor, participants were more likely to feel "disgust" about such conditions, a feeling that the researchers said can lead people to delay seeking treatment (Foley, Quartz, 7/9).

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