A new use for platinum: Improving the quality of water

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Going Platinum: A Non-Toxic Catalyst for Clean, Re-Usable Water

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Going Platinum: A Non-Toxic Catalyst for Clean, Re-Usable Water
Learn how USC researchers identified a new treatment for harmful chemicals in wastewater.

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Platinum has set a new “gold standard” in jewelry, and now it’s about to upscale the quality of your water.

As wastewater treatment for potable – drinkable – reuse becomes a more viable and popular option to address water shortages, the question of what harmful byproducts might form in treatment and how to address them looms large. One group of these chemicals, aldehydes, are known to stubbornly persist through treatment. Toxic to humans, aldehydes will be at the top of the list of regulated byproducts in forthcoming reuse regulations, USC researchers believe, and require sustainable methodology to be removed from our drinking water.

In research published in Environmental Science & Technology, USC Viterbi School of Engineering researchers introduce platinum to help clean even the most stubborn toxins from wastewater. Platinum, the same metal used in catalytic converters to clean up air pollutants in car exhaust, can serve as a catalyst, said Dan McCurry, assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering, speeding up oxidation to transform once-toxic aldehydes into harmless carboxylic acids.

When wastewater is recycled, McCurry said, the resulting water is “very pure, but not 100 percent pure. There’s still a tiny amount of organic carbon detectable and these carbon atoms could be attached to molecules that are very toxic or completely innocent.” This has perplexed people for years, he said, particularly because the carbon is able to make it through so many treatment layers and barriers.

A study conducted by UC Berkeley researcher David Sedlak revealed that “one-third to one half” of these molecules are present in the form of aldehydes, McCurry said. Aldehydes are chemical compounds characterized by a carbon atom that shares a double bond with an oxygen atom, a single bond with a hydrogen atom, and a single bond with another atom or group of atoms. They are also generally toxic to humans, meaning that their long-term consumption could result in a variety of chronic and life-threatening illnesses such as cancer.

Catalytic oxidation of organic pollutants in water, without electrochemistry, addition of electron-accepting oxidant chemicals, or photochemistry, has not been sustainably demonstrated to date, McCurry said. Until now.
A Solution for an Upcoming Problem

McCurry recalled learning about oxidants used for synthesizing molecules in an organic chemistry course he took while he was a graduate student at Stanford University. “The TA was going through a list of oxidants used by synthetic chemists and platinum catalysts caught my eye. Not only is it one of the few oxidants that is non-toxic, but it can utilize the oxygen in water to catalyze a reaction abiotically (without the use of microbes).”

“It was really exciting to me,” McCurry said, “because it’s always been frustrating in water treatment that water is full of oxygen, but it doesn’t really do anything.”

There are about eight milligrams per liter of dissolved oxygen in water, McCurry said. While it’s a potent oxidant from a thermodynamic perspective, McCurry said, the reaction is slow. With platinum, the process speeds up. For a while, McCurry and his team of researchers used platinum to oxidize different pharmaceuticals as a matter of experimentation.

“We knew we could oxidize certain things, but we didn’t have a clear application in mind for this catalyst,” McCurry said. Ultimately, their hope was to find an impactful application for their work. Eventually, after a year of experimenting, the idea came to him while riding his bike home from Stanford’s campus. “What if we could use platinum in water treatment to oxidize contaminants?” he said. “It would happen essentially for free, and because the oxygen is already in the water, it’s the closest you could get to a chemical-free oxidation.”

McCurry acknowledges that platinum is expensive, but also notes that the cost, like for a car’s catalytic converter, is relative. “Your car probably has between one and 10 grams of platinum in it. The amount isn’t trivial. If it’s cheap enough to put in a Honda Civic, it’s probably cheap enough to put in a water treatment plant,” McCurry said.

The breakthrough, McCurry said, is not as relevant for most existing water reuse plants, as many of them favor “indirect potable reuse.” This is where, after all the water treatment and recycling processes are complete, water is pumped back into the ground–so they are essentially creating new groundwater. “Once they are in the ground, it’s likely some microbe will eat the aldehydes and the water will be cleaned that way,” he said.

“But more and more people are talking about direct potable reuse,” he said, “where we are talking about a closed water loop where water goes from the wastewater treatment plant to the reuse plant and then either to a drinking water plant or directly into the distribution system into homes and businesses.”

In these cases, aldehydes could potentially reach consumers, McCurry said. While they are currently unregulated, McCurry suspects that the presence of aldehydes in recycled wastewater will soon attract regulatory attention. “This is the problem we didn’t realize we had a solution for, but now we know, this catalyst, which we had been using to oxidize random pharmaceuticals for fun, works great on oxidizing aldehydes–and would allow for direct potable reuse water to meet future regulatory guidelines and safety standards,” he said.

The team did a preliminary experiment using platinum in batch reactors on a few gallons of water. The experiments were successful, but McCurry says for this to catch on at a mass production level, additional research would need to be done regarding how long the catalyst remains active. The team is looking into how to potentially regenerate the catalyst, as well. McCurry says it will also be important to test the system with dirtier water, which can foul up the catalyst and make it less effective.

The process, for which the team has a patent pending, will look to be more sustainable than alternative methods which might require introduction of additional chemicals and energy, McCurry said.

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USC repeats as overall winner of Pac-12 Zero Waste Challenge for basketball

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SALT LAKE CITY – Following its overall win of the Pac-12 Zero Waste Challenge for the 2021 football season, USC was again selected as the overall winner of the challenge for the 2021-22 basketball season, earning the Trojans a sweep of the 2021-22 campaign. The Trojans have now earned the overall recognition four times, also including the 2017 and 2016 football seasons. The announcement was made today (June 16) during a special awards ceremony at the 2022 Pac-12 Sustainability Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah.

This latest award was achieved through USC’s Zero Waste campaign at the Trojans’ January 29 men’s basketball game against California. There, USC accomplished a 91.8% diversion rate with 662 pounds in recycling and 500 pounds in compost. In an effort to establish the Zero Waste game as part of the campus’ larger effort to prioritize sustainability, USC implemented a pregame awareness and engagement campaign for fans and provided waste disposal tips and instructions.

USC’s President, Dr. Carol Folt, recorded a promotional video to raise awareness for the Zero Waste game, advocating for support from the Trojan community and connecting the green efforts from the men’s basketball and football programs. Additionally, Facilities Planning Management partnered with the Office of Sustainability to hold a social media takeover to educate fans on proper waste disposal and reduction practices. Also at the event, USC partnered with the SC Garden Club and allowed students to man a gameday engagement table and provide education pertaining to the university’s larger sustainability goals.

USC’s Zero Waste Game also garnered the Trojans national honors as the winner of the National Wildlife Federation’s GameDay Basketball Diversion category in the 2022 Campus Race to Zero Waste Competition.

A core pillar of Pac-12 Team Green, the Pac-12 Zero Waste Challenge is held annually during both football and basketball seasons. Each university selects one home football and one home basketball game to compete and provide a platform for engaging on best practices in waste diversion. As part of the competition, each competing university submitted a scorecard detailing the efforts around its Zero Waste game. Criteria is weighted as such: 25 percent participation and partnerships, 25 percent innovation credit and 50 percent stadium diversion rate.

More information on the Pac-12 Zero Waste Challenge is available at Pac-12.com/green.

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Is recycled wastewater the answer to California’s water shortage?

An exceptional drought season means California enters the summer under mandatory water use restrictions for the first time since 2015. Increasingly light snowfall sends less fresh water to be treated and distributed as fully drinkable water, making new methods of purifying water a vital priority. In fact, nearly 60% of the state is suffering from “extreme drought” conditions, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System.

Enter Dan McCurry, assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. McCurry is an environmental engineer who specializes in wastewater reuse and drinking-water treatment. We spoke with him about the water restrictions, the different types of wastewater and whether he meets the new state requirements for personal water use.

What is environmental engineering?

Environmental engineering is somewhat confusingly named. People tend to think that it involves building habitats for the spotted owl or something like that. Really the main goal is to control and remediate environmental pollution for ecological and human health reasons, and primarily the latter. It used to be called sanitary engineering until the 1960s, when they realized they had a marketing problem because that term sounds gross.

What do you research?

Environmental engineering is primarily split between air and water researchers — I work on the water side. My research is specifically about water reuse and the process that we use to take treated wastewater and turn it into something that is usable as a drinking water source. I study the chemicals in wastewater and how they interact with our treatment processes. These include all kinds of things like industrial solvents and stuff that gets flushed down the drain, like pharmaceuticals. Two-thirds of my research is focused on how well those chemicals are removed during the treatment process and understanding the chemical mechanisms of that. And the other third of my research is on developing new treatment technologies that might be able to get rid of some of those chemicals more efficiently or in a better way.

How does recycling wastewater work?

If you imagine a river going past a city, raw water comes in and is turned into tap water. We take water out of a river or the ground — or in the case of Los Angeles, we actually import it from hundreds of miles away — and treat it to make tap water and send it to people’s homes and businesses. It then becomes sewage and is treated as wastewater — it’s not clean enough to drink but it’s safe to discharge back into the river. With water reuse, we’re trying to close that loop by taking the treated wastewater and running it through a third plant and turn that into a new source for drinking water.

How is recycled wastewater used?

There are three flavors of water reuse — non-potable reuse, indirect potable reuse and direct potable reuse. Non-potable reuse is just recycling water to use on things like grass or golf courses, and also crop irrigation and industrial purposes — places where the water quality doesn’t bother people very much. You see this all over the place in Southern California. Anytime you see a purple pipe on the side of the freeway or in a median, that indicates that it’s using recycled water.

When you put water into the ground, it’s assumed you are getting a bit of treatment for free from nature.

Dan McCurry, USC Viterbi water researcher

Moving into potable reuse, the overwhelming majority of reused wastewater is being used for indirect use. The treatment plant in Orange County is a good example of this — once it’s recycled, it’s put into what is called an environmental buffer or environmental barrier. What that means 99% of the time is that the treated water is injected back into the ground where it essentially becomes new groundwater. It’s considered lower risk than direct potable use because when you put water into the ground, it’s assumed you are getting a bit of treatment for free from nature. Anything we missed with engineered processes will hopefully get filtered out by the ground.

OK, but what about water we can drink?

Direct potable use means closing the loop fully: Water coming out of the recycling process is run directly to the drinking water plant or refills a reservoir. Imagine something like a plant recycling water and then pumping it up to reservoirs like Castaic Lake or Pyramid Lake in the mountains north of L.A. There’s a lot of excitement about direct potable reuse, but right now it’s not legal in California but should be soon. The bar is much higher for direct use reuse because you sacrifice the filtration given by the environment. The good thing is that it ends up being a bit cheaper because you’re not pumping water out of the ground, which consumes an enormous amount of energy.

How close are we to having this technology available widely?

The short answer is we’re already there. There’s a couple dozen full-scale water reuse plants around the world and we have the biggest one in the world in Fountain Valley in Orange County. When fully operational, it will be able to process 100 to 130 million gallons per day — it is able to process 100% of Orange County’s reclaimable wastewater into water suitable for indirect potable reuse.

What impact will the new water restrictions have?

This isn’t a one-time thing. The water use restrictions are needed, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think that a short-term fix will solve the problem. There was a big call for voluntary water usage cuts followed by a conservation mandate during the last drought in 2015, and it worked, but only for a year and then water use went right back up. It’s the kind of thing you can get people to do for a little bit but then they get sick of it. In the long term, we need to produce more reliable local sources of water.

Are you following the restrictions?

I was looking at my water bill the other day because I’ve been interviewed by the media a few times recently and wanted to make sure I’m not using more than I should. Thankfully, I am already using less than the future restricted amount. In fact, we ripped out most of our backyard when we got our house about a year and a half ago, replacing most of it with native plants and leaving a little 10-by-10 patch of grass for the dog to roll around in. That’s to say your yard doesn’t need to be a barren wasteland — you can have a bit of green landscaping and still easily comply with the restrictions as long as you’re sensible about it.

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Meet the USC badminton star who wants to make ethical and sustainable gear

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The USC Badminton Star Who Wants to Make Ethical and Sustainable Shuttlecocks

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The USC Badminton Star Who Wants to Make Ethical and Sustainable Shuttlecocks
USC Viterbi 2022 graduate Saket Venkatesh is harnessing his industrial and systems engineering skills to develop badminton shuttlecocks that avoid animal cruelty and cut waste.
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With its lightening pace and intricate strategy, badminton is one of the world’s most popular sports in terms of participation — second only to soccer — with over 220 million regular players.

Saket Venkatesh (M.S. ISE ’22) grew up on the badminton courts of India, the birthplace of the modern game, where it remains wildly popular. As a kid, he tagged along to watch his dad play and fell in love with the game. Then, after years of hard work, he made his way into the prestigious Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy, a breeding ground for future Olympic champions that was founded by former world number one player, Prakash Padukone.

But as a talented young player with big dreams, Venkatesh was soon to discover there was a dark side to the feathered shuttlecocks he and his fellow athletes pelted across the courts at dizzying speeds and impossibly precise arcs.

A competition-grade badminton shuttlecock is crafted from 16 overlapping goose or duck feathers embedded into a cork base. The feathers require a specific curvature that can only be found in the left-wing feathers of a bird. This configuration allows the shuttle to have the very exact weight and aerodynamics needed for elite games.

In recent years, the way these feathers are gathered has drawn the ire of animal lovers. It’s something that just didn’t sit right with Venkatesh.

“When you enter the sport, you’re just given the feather shuttlecock and you never think about what the implications are. But when I was doing a bit more research, I understood that shuttlecocks come about through a lot of animal harm,” Venkatesh said.

“Geese or ducks are held down by their necks and the feathers are plucked out of their wing. And because it’s only plucked out of one wing, the bird is imbalanced. There is a lot of pain that goes on,” he said.

The concern is also an environmental one. Not only is the manufacturing process unnecessarily cruel, but it also generates a lot of waste from discarded shuttles, which have a notoriously short shelf life. Any minor wear and tear to the shuttlecock completely ruins its integrity.

“So in any professional tournaments — whether that’s the Olympics, the All England Open or the India Open — every two to three points, the shuttle is exchanged for a new one and the old one is thrown out,” Venkatesh said.

“It’s just waste at that point. It can be used for drills, but never for a match. Looking at the life cycle, after the bird endures so much pain, it’s all in vain because the shuttle is only used for a minute or two and then thrown out,” he said.

And while there are shuttle alternatives, such as the plastic versions often used by children and casual players, their specifications do not offer the precision of the competition-grade feathered shuttles and so they cannot be used at an elite level.

Venkatesh is now hoping to change that.

Since coming to USC Viterbi in 2018 to undertake his B.S. and M.S. in industrial and systems engineering and engineering management, while also playing with USC Badminton, Venkatesh has been working under the guidance of Smith International Professor of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering Satyandra K. Gupta to develop a proposal for a graphene-based shuttlecock to improve shuttle lifespan and reduce animal harm.

The research aims to create a commercially viable two-step plan that would firstly see existing shuttles coated in the graphene material, to reduce damage during competitive play and keep feathers intact — vastly improving the product lifespan.

“So instead of using 30 a match, we can potentially just use one a match,” Venkatesh said.

Venkatesh said professional players would not be able to notice a significant difference in the shuttle, as graphene is an extremely light and durable material with good absorption properties that would not change the weight and aerodynamics of the shuttlecock.
“This would be a short-term solution, but the second step is more of a long-term solution where we could completely replace the feather shuttlecocks, using other materials to create a complete substitute,” Venkatesh said.

The project is currently in the early stage of conception to establish viability, whereas the next stage would involve lab testing of the materials. Venkatesh said there is a lot of tradition in the centuries of badminton making it difficult to completely change a fundamental component such as the feathered shuttlecock — which is why he has been looking into a more gradual two-step process to firstly improve the existing shuttles before phasing them out.

“There is no product in this space right now. The Badminton World Federation is definitely open to experimenting with new products, but at this point they just don’t have anything to experiment with,” he said.

While Venkatesh has been harnessing his engineering knowledge to improve his beloved sport, he can also see how many of the attributes he gained while growing up and playing high-level badminton have come in handy during his engineering education.

“It is a sport where a lot of strategy comes into play and it requires logical decision-making, and naturally I feel that at the core of engineering as well, so it was definitely a good overlap for me,” Venkatesh said. “Engineering really hones the left side of your brain and pushes you to think strategically and in a logical manner, and I was applying those concepts while I was playing badminton as well.”

Venkatesh was recently awarded USC Viterbi’s 2022 Outstanding Achievement in Leadership Award and the Master’s Student of the Year Award from the Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering. After graduation, Venkatesh will be moving to New York City to take up a role with PwC’s strategy consulting team Strategy& as a customer transformation associate. He’s still hoping to find a badminton team in the Big Apple so he can continue to improve his game.

“I love the sport. I don’t want to change the way we play. But maybe making it a bit more ethical would be the way to go forward,” Venkatesh said.

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President Folt encourages business sustainability class to ‘engage people’s hearts’

As a biologist, USC President Carol L. Folt understands the importance of sustainability to the natural world — and to the world of business.

“I’m pretty optimistic that there are going to be more and more businesses stepping up,” she told a class of about 25 graduate students who attended Paul Adler‘s “Business and Environmental Sustainability” class on May 5. “Maybe not in the next three years, but five, 10, 15 years down the road, no antiquated business with terrible energy policies is going to survive.”

Diverse perspectives are key to creating a more sustainable future, Folt said. Whether students come from backgrounds in business, engineering or the arts, the bottom line, she noted, is to be able to reach people.

“We can have the greatest processes, the greatest data and the greatest ideas, but if we can’t engage people’s hearts, the business is not going to work,” she said.

Adler, a professor of management and organization, sociology and environmental studies, said he shared Folt’s sense of urgency around climate change and other environmental challenges.

“It was wonderful to have her visit the class and talk with students about what USC is doing,” said Adler, the USC Marshall of Business’ Harold Quinton Chair in Business Policy.

Business sustainability class ends on a high note

“It was a great way to end the semester, with President Folt encouraging the students to bring their sustainability commitment and knowledge to whatever work they go on to do.”

As she spoke with students in the class, she asked each person where they were from and what they were studying. Growing up in Akron, Ohio — a city that she acknowledged was not a hub for environmentalism — Folt eventually made her way to the West Coast for college. She told students about her own path toward working for sustainability and key events that shaped her journey, including being in college at the University of California, Santa Barbara, during the first recognized Earth Day.

“From there on, all my studies and everything went to sort of, ‘How do I take that and work on the environmental future?'” Folt said.

Folt emphasized USC’s sustainability efforts, including the elimination of single-use plastics on campus, reduction in water use, and a zero-waste goal by 2028.

That reassured student Yaara Berdan, who besides earning her Master of Business Administration from USC Marshall is also an assistant professor of clinical dentistry at the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC. Berdan said she was happy to hear that more courses would be offered for students to “increase their awareness of this critical problem.”

Business sustainability: gaining momentum

“The culture is beginning to change, and sustainability is gaining momentum,” Berdan said. “There is so much potential at USC to work collaboratively among the different disciplines to tackle climate change. With the leadership of President Folt and the commitment of so many on campus, I am confident that USC will play a significant role in finding solutions to this urgent threat.”

Graduating Master of Business Administration student Hanna Laikin said that Folt’s visit and conversation with the class were the perfect way to cap her graduate program. As Laikin listened to Folt lay out the university’s plan moving forward — including being carbon-neutral by 2035 — she said that her final class in her USC career made her optimistic.

“While certain classes leave me uncertain of our environmental future, I left this engagement feeling grateful to have her as our president,” Laikin said. “It is important as a leader to have a clear vision for the future to leave your audience feeling motivated and ready to action. … I am excited to watch the university continue to be a leader in this field.”

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Laguna Niguel fire signals start of a long wildfire season in California

Wildfires scorched the American West in 2021, leaving death and destruction in their wake. In California alone, Cal Fire recorded 8,835 wildfires that destroyed more than 2.5 million acres cumulatively. The Dixie Fire in Northern California was particularly destructive, charring nearly 1 million acres, over 1,000 structures and killing one person.

A new season has begun and with alarming speed. The Laguna Niguel wildfire in Orange County destroyed at least 20 homes and hundreds of acres of foliage in no time. The continued effects of climate change and especially extreme drought mean wildfire poses a risk year-round, said Bill Deverell, director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West and head of its The West on Fire research project.

Laguna Niguel fire portends a fire season that never ends

“Summer in California no longer means the beginning of fire season. Rather, it means we are about to enter the roughest six or so months of a fire season that never ends,” said Deverell, who is also a professor of history and spatial sciences at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “Drought and the increasing effects of climate change come together in creating the likelihood — even the certainty — of bigger, hotter, and more catastrophic fires year to year.”

What we need is more fire on the brain.

Bill Deverell, Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West

Deverell noted fire management practices continue to adapt. For instance, prescribed burns help cut the fuel supply to emerging fires. Regardless, the changes will take time to implement, he said. Awareness and continued research on wildfires are essential to addressing the threat.

“What we need is more fire on the brain: We have to talk about it more, we have to study it more, and we have to try to understand it better, even as the ‘fire regimes’ of the American West are changing year to year,” Deverell said.

California wildfires: Downwind smoke presents additional threat to L.A. residents

The destructive capacity of the fire is only one threat. Downwind smoke means the detrimental effects of the fires — smoke and particulates — reach into urban centers, even if the flames don’t. Ed Avol, professor of clinical population and public health sciences at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and expert on smoke toxicity, said the smoke can affect people hundreds of miles from an active fire.

“We often forget that wildfire impacts extend to cities and areas hundreds or more miles beyond the actual wildfire location through downwind smoke,” he said. “The resulting poor air quality can affect your physical, mental and psychological health, so plan in advance for what you might do in case an event occurs where you live or work.”

Avol suggests keeping N95 masks handy and to consider a home air purifier that can filter an amount of air consistent to the size of the room or house you plan to use it. If there is an active wildfire or substantial smoke in your area, he advises: “Reduce your exercise, stay indoors with windows and doors closed, and remember to place damp towels at the base of exit doors and windows.”

Establishing a defensible space is also essential in the event of a nearby fire, according to postdoctoral researcher Rebecca Miller, who works with Deverell on The West on Fire project. Los Angeles isn’t immune from the effects of wildfires, she said, and residents can prepare ahead of time — before a fire has even started near them.

Communities and residents can prepare for wildfires and the possibility of an evacuation by making a plan now.

Rebecca Miller, Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West

“Los Angeles has seen significant structure losses from recent wildfires like the Woolsey Fire in 2018, but residents may also be exposed to high smoke concentrations originating across California or the western United States,” she said. “Communities and residents can prepare for wildfires and the possibility of an evacuation by making a plan now. Cal Fire provides specific tips for how residents can prepare for wildfires at readyforwildfire.org.”

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5 ways USC commencement is cleaner and greener

Commencement is one of USC’s biggest non-athletic events of the year — some 60,000 people are expected for Friday’s ceremonies — but the university will continue to strive to be green despite the crowds. The goal for commencement ceremony venues is to be zero-waste, or at least as close to zero-waste as possible, notably at major sites such as Alumni Memorial Park, Founders Park, Cromwell Field and McCarthy Quad.

Here are five ways the 2022 USC commencement will be greener and cleaner than before:

1. Using fewer generators.

The power for commencement will come from “spider boxes” around campus that will pull energy from surrounding buildings. That’s instead of gas-powered generators, whose use the university reduced by nearly 80%.

2. Multistream recycling bins.

This spring, USC Facilities Planning and Management installed 98 multistream bins around the University Park Campus, replacing more than 230 old receptacles. The new bins include graphics showing users what can and cannot go in each section, including compost, recycling, landfill and liquid pour stations to help sort waste and increase the university’s diversion rate from landfill.

3. Reducing single-use plastics.

As part of the larger effort to eliminate single-use plastics on campus, all water bottles available for purchase at commencement will be aluminum. Visitors are encouraged to bring their own refillable water bottles (see below).

4. Water refill stations.

The University Park Campus has 172 such stations, and the Health Sciences Campus has 33. Those refill sites save the university about 140,411 water bottles a month, said Zelinda Welch, sustainability manager at USC Facilities Planning and Management.

5. Reducing paper use.

The university used to place programs on every seat of the main ceremony, but about half of those would be left behind, said Adam Rosen, USC’s associate vice president of cultural relations and university events. This year the university printed 3,000 fewer programs. Rosen said. They will be available at the 10 information booths around University Park Campus and one on the Health Sciences Campus.

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Marine Corps veteran and new USC graduate helps convert shipping containers into housing

The construction at Crenshaw and Hyde Park boulevards can be seen and heard from far away. It represents noisy progress toward relieving the city’s housing crisis.

J.D. Barba, who is with the firm C.W. Driver, oversees construction at Hope on Hyde Park, a 60,000-square-foot project consisting of 96 studio and one-bedroom apartments. The energy-efficient, airy units are seamless. The only clue that this project employs an innovative construction technique can be found on exterior walls: cruciform plates and steel joints in the shape of a cross. These materials are parts of shipping containers — 184 of them — that will offer affordable transitional housing to people who have been homeless.

The modular process is about a third faster than traditional construction, and cuts costs by 10%, according to some estimates.

“L.A. struggles to keep up with its housing needs year after year, and I’m proud to be on the cutting edge of technology that makes transitional and affordable housing more efficient and sustainable for those who need it most,” Barba said. “Projects like ours that require 50% of the labor force to come from local hires, so a portion of the funding goes back into the communities.”

New USC graduate served on humanitarian missions

In the U.S. Marine Corps, Barba served on humanitarian missions that included relief efforts in Haiti. Upon returning to the United States, he completed a construction degree at California State University, Long Beach. Last year, he entered the one-year Master of Business for Veterans program at the USC Marshall School of Business.

Barba, who’s planning his wedding along with commencement, doesn’t intend to start his own construction firm or take an entrepreneurial leap. He sees the master’s program as key to rising within the construction industry.

“It’s all about trying to, you know, work my way up the ladder and make real changes,” he said.

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USC Children’s Health Study, now 30 years old, raises nationwide awareness of pollution’s harms

Smog’s harmful effect on health is widely understood. The noxious mixture of ozone, nitrogen dioxide and fine particulate matter wreaks havoc on the entire body. Lung, brain and heart health suffer but it also has been linked to behavioral problems, Alzheimer’s disease and obesity.

However, none of this was established in 1992 when a team of USC public health researchers, led by the late John Peters, launched a long-term investigation into the effects of air pollution on children. More than 30 years later, the ongoing Southern California Children’s Health Study has changed the nation’s understanding of air pollution’s harms — and shown how clean-air standards can make a difference.

“Air pollution health effects research has matured. The initial thought was, ‘If you’re breathing it, it must be a lung effect,'” said Ed Avol, a professor of clinical population and public health sciences at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and co-investigator on the study. “But then we came to appreciate that once it gets into the circulatory system [via the lungs], contaminants can travel to most any organ system.

“Now, we are seeing effects in the brain, in the heart and lungs, and in the metabolic system, affecting a whole number of health outcomes and diseases that we didn’t think initially were related to air pollution.”

The study’s significance is enormous. Seminal papers published in the New England Journal of Medicine and The Lancet led to policies resulting in cleaner air in L.A. and healthier lungs in children. Papers by Avol, William “Jim” Gauderman, Frank Gilliland and Rob McConnell have been cited in more than 16,300 articles by other researchers, according to data from the citation database Web of Science.

The work attracts top young researchers to USC’s Department of Population and Public Health Sciences and has inspired dozens of spinoff studies, including the latest funding award, USC’s designation as a Children’s Environmental Health Translation Center by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

“The Southern California Children’s Health Study greatly increased public understanding of the damages of poor air quality, and the importance of accelerating clean air progress to give our children’s health a fighting chance,” said William Barrett, national senior director of advocacy, clean air, for the American Lung Association. “This critical research continues to spur the fight for clean air for all children, and especially those most impacted by pollution today.”

Over the past three decades, the Children’s Health Study and associated research have been supported by roughly $35 million in federal funding. These studies have required the input from many experts in specialty fields. Contributors have included direct health data collectors, statewide air monitoring personnel, attendance office personnel at more than 50 different schools across the study communities, and a host of data analysts, biostatisticians, students and staff to manage, analyze and interpret the collected data.

“Easily hundreds, and more likely, a few thousand researchers have participated over the years,” Avol said.

USC Children’s Health Study ushers in ‘a cascade of changes’

Pollution was in decline when the study began in 1992, thanks to the passage of the Clean Air Act in the 1970s. Gone were the days when Angelenos incinerated trash in their backyards and orange growers burned tires to keep away the chill. But ozone as well as tiny PM2.5 particles from car exhaust penetrate deeply into the lungs, and they remained persistent problems. Little was known about how they affected children breathing them every day.

The USC research team decided to find out. With funding from the California Air Resources Board, they tracked levels of common pollutants such as ozone, nitrogen dioxide (NO2), acids and fine particulate matter in 12 Southern California communities while following the pulmonary health of children as they progressed from fourth grade to 12th grade. The communities included some of the most polluted areas in the greater Los Angeles Basin, as well as several lower-pollution sites outside the area for comparison.

Such studies take time, and the first big payoff was more than a decade in the making. In 2004, The New England Journal of Medicine — arguably one of the most important scientific journals in the world — published the team’s sobering discovery: By age 18, the lungs of many children who grew up in smoggy areas were underdeveloped and would likely never recover.

“In other words, a significant fraction of children breathing polluted air throughout their teen years were transitioning into adulthood with lung function at least 20% below normal,” Gauderman said.

“The findings led to a cascade of changes because it provided an objective assessment, a documentation of long-term impacts on children’s health,” Avol said. “And that really provided a rationale for the directives to meet the Clean Air Act to protect the public’s health.”

Avol, Gauderman and McConnell have all participated in Environmental Protection Agency committees related to the setting of national air quality standards. The Children’s Health Study was explicitly cited and quoted in terms of considerations and changes to the ozone, particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide standards.

Coming full circle: USC Children’s Health Study

In 2007 another significant finding from the study was published in The Lancet. The findings were especially damning for L.A.: Children living closest to freeways and busy highways had significant impairments in the development of their lungs that can lead to lifelong respiratory problems. That publication ignited fierce debate over the widening of highways and the siting of child care centers, parks, schools and residential construction.

“In L.A., there was a resolution passed by the school board to limit siting of schools to at least 500 feet from busy freeways, citing our study as part of the justification,” Gauderman said. “Our work demonstrated negative health impacts within 500 meters of a freeway, but when the resolution came out, the meters had become feet — 500 feet. We still thought that was a win even though it was three times closer. Before, there were no air pollution-based siting regulations.”

The team kept gathering data, recruiting more children, taking repeated lung-function measurements and examining the information through one lens and then another. Between 1994 and 2010, levels of air pollutants improved dramatically, as federal and state emission standards forced emissions reductions in California’s cars, diesel trucks, ships, trains and refineries.

For example, the average amount of fine particulate matter dropped 43% in Mira Loma. In Long Beach, annual nitrogen dioxide levels improved from 34.4 parts per billion to 20.3 parts per billion, a 41% reduction.

The direct impact of those improvements on child health was reported in 2015 in The New England Journal of Medicine. The USC team’s work had come full circle — first, by documenting pollution’s harms to children, and then demonstrating how health improved with cleaner air.

Over a 17-year period, USC scientists documented declining levels of PM2.5 and nitrogen dioxide. At the same time, they measured lung function in 2,120 children annually from three separate groups corresponding to three separate calendar periods: 1994-1998, 1997-2001 and 2007-2011. Children born in later years had bigger lungs than those born earlier when pollution levels were worse. Positive effects were seen in boys and girls, regardless of race and ethnicity.

“For the first time,” The New York Times reported, “researchers have shown that reducing air pollution leads to improved respiratory function in children ages 11 to 15, a critical period of lung development.”

Avol concedes that the work will probably never be done. As new research reveals connections between, say, pollution and Alzheimer’s-like brain changes, or demonstrates how cleaner air led to a reduction in new child asthma cases, the argument for tighter regulations only gets stronger.

At the same time, given the many sources of pollution — increased traffic at the Port of Los Angeles, the rapid proliferation of Amazon warehouses and longer commute times — “it does seem like we will always be trying to reduce or remove something from the air we all breathe,” Avol said.

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Throwing shade at L.A.: USC researcher measures impact of trees, or the lack of them

The sprawling hardscape of Los Angeles does not provide many opportunities to escape the ravages of climate change — extreme heat and air pollution thrive in a city crisscrossed by major freeways and extensive development. However, not all Angelenos suffer equally. Some neighborhoods provide oases from adverse conditions, while others suffer from them disproportionately.

An expanded canopy could help with moderating temperatures and decreasing air pollution, says John Wilson, founding director of the Spatial Sciences Institute and principal investigator of the Urban Trees Initiative at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. In his research, Wilson utilizes satellite imaging data paired with interdisciplinary research to better understand how different systems work together to make a city run. We spoke with Wilson about his work with the Urban Trees Initiative and how greening the city could fix some of its ills.

What inspired you to research the urban canopy?

The driver here in large measure is inequality. When you think of climate change and global warming, how much different parts of the landscape are going to warm up varies tremendously, particularly in Southern California. In the next 30 years, the everyday temperatures at the coast might not change much, but if we go to downtown and L.A.’s Eastside, the number of 90-degree days are likely to double or triple. What happens if we had 10 days in a row above 90 degrees — how would that impact people’s lives? In thinking about that, the most likely path to being able to address people’s exposure to excess heat would be to improve the urban canopy.

What role does the urban canopy play in worsening equity?

The canopy itself is already inequitable. When you look at the whole of the L.A. Basin, two areas have a lot of trees — Pacific Palisades and Pasadena. One of my PhD students conducted a painstaking study a number of years ago where he looked at changes in tree cover on single-family home lots from 2002-2013. We looked at the 15 council districts in the city of L.A. and tree cover in the next 19 largest cities and, lo and behold, there were tremendous disparities in urban canopy. But when you looked at change, those places that had low canopy to start with had the fastest retreat in terms of percentage of tree cover. In places like Pasadena or Pacific Palisades, there was still a loss of tree cover, but it was slower.

The synopsis was already poor — at-need people and people of color had a lot less benefits from tree canopy than well-to-do people. But we found out the trends were heading in the wrong direction as well.

What role does spatial science play?

Satellites have made an enormous difference to how we can understand and interpret the Earth. We also now have a lot of tools for calculating relationships — where things overlap and where they occur separately — and you can link the two. With urban canopy and the shade it provides, we have been comparing elementary school enrollment areas in terms of the canopy cover. Which schools could benefit the most if we were to plant trees now, 20 years into the future? We’re now looking at the same idea around transit and transit stops with Marlon Boarnet at USC Price School of Public Policy, where we can see how the green canopy changes ridership.

Lately, I’ve compared two places named BH — Beverly Hills and Boyle Heights. I have two graphs that show distribution of green cover versus hardscape. On the side measuring hardscape, Boyle Heights and Beverly Hills look almost identical — lots of buildings, lots of streets. The difference comes when you look at the side of the graph where you would expect green infrastructure. Beverly Hills has a huge spike, while Boyle Heights has none. Beverly Hills has a huge spike because there are large properties with lots of green cover that isn’t even seasonal, it’s year-round. When you look at Boyle Heights, it just fades away to nothing.

How do you determine what areas would benefit the most from an expanded canopy?

We developed a careful catalog of what trees comprise the existing canopy, where it is and its benefits and what fraction of the people gain any benefit from this tree canopy. In Boyle Heights, there’s about 90,000 residents and only about 25,000 trees. What my group is developing is a three-dimensional shade model utilizing GIS so that we could capture the likely benefits in terms of heat mitigation. We can run scenarios where we add 20% to the canopy and find what that would mean for people’s everyday lives in terms of cooling.

With so few trees and such poor transportation options, it’s really difficult to find some relief from the heat.

John Wilson, spatial scientist

For instance, roughly 20% of households have no car, so they’re either walking or they’re on transit. That means they don’t have the opportunity to do what I might do on a smoking hot day and go to the beach for the day. It’s easy for me because I have a car, but the trip for them would likely be more than two hours each way and they’re limited to wherever the bus stops are located. With so few trees and such poor transportation options, it’s really difficult to find some relief from the heat — which will have some negative impacts on their everyday health and well-being.

Can trees bear the load and remove the carbon?

We’re closely looking at the potential for using canopy to mitigate air pollution. While across the L.A. Basin air pollution has improved over the last 50 years, there are still lots of problems on busy roads and next to freeways. Thinking of the Eastside, you have the 10 cutting these neighborhoods in half, the 5 to the west — and Boyle Heights has both of those conditions, plus the 60 and the 101 go through it as well. The busiest intersection in the United States is in Boyle Heights. We’ve found there’s very little scientific literature about how well specific configurations and species of trees can take pollutants out of the atmosphere, particulate matter in particular. As a result, we’ve been working with Will Berelson in the Earth Sciences department at Dornsife to investigate ways to put air quality monitors in trees.

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