GVSU Special Collections to house PFAS stories gathered by writing faculty member

Bird perched on a log in a river

A writing faculty member collection of personal stories of those affected by PFAS will be added to GVSU's Special Collections on the history of the West Michigan region.

Dani DeVasto, assistant professor of writing, is gathering stories from residents, scientists, community leaders and others who have been shaped by the PFAS contamination that has dominated news in West Michigan in recent years.

"Living With PFAS" is an oral history project that seeks to add another layer of context to the crisis by sharing people's personal accounts. DeVasto, whose research background includes science communication and how experts and the public communicate about risks and uncertainty, started the project earlier in the spring and is seeking a wide range of stories.

DeVasto hopes adding these personal elements to the more technical and scientific accounts stemming from PFAS contamination will round out the picture for future action and policy decisions. She said the effects on people's lives were not a prominent part of the conversation.

"Stories shape what we think about something. They shape our thoughts and feelings about topics and they can shape what’s next," DeVasto said. 

"PFAS is an emerging risk we know some things about, but we’re still grappling with how to handle it at local, state and national level. We’re collecting stories as the larger story is unfolding as opposed to an event that has already taken place."



Dani DeVasto
Dani DeVasto, assistant professor of writing
Image Credit: Courtesy photo

While many of the stories understandably center on the health impact, the personal effects from PFAS are wide in scope, DeVasto noted, from people's hobbies such as fishing to the workplace for policy makers or media members.

And while the stories deal with complex and sometimes distressing situations, DeVasto said she also encounters threads of hope and resilience in the conversations.

"These are people who still have a lot of hope and are active in trying to help others," DeVasto said.

Partnering with GVSU Special Collections and University Archives is an important part of preserving this work, DeVasto said.

This type of oral history project lines up with the vision for presenting the history of the West Michigan region, said Annie Benefiel, university archivist and digital collections librarian.

"In particular, we're looking for ones that add a new aspect or facet to collections and this one was really interesting to us," Benefiel said.

The hope is to include not only transcripts but also digital assets, Benefiel said. Collections such as these are openly available for research purposes and draw worldwide interest, she added.

"This is something that will continue to unfold as the years wear on," Benefield said. "Capturing these stories now and being able to preserve them, 10, 20, 50 years down the road, historians will be able to draw on this collection when writing the history of this region."