GRAND RAPIDS, MI — Danielle DeVasto noticed something was missing from many discussions, news reports, studies, official updates and other communication about the widespread pollutants known as PFAS, or “forever chemicals.”
Where were the personal accounts?
“I noticed that a lot of the personal experiences and the people were missing from those conversations,” said DeVasto, an assistant professor of writing at Grand Valley State University (GVSU) who lives in Grand Rapids, Mich.
“And it felt like most of the time I was seeing and hearing PFAS being treated solely as a technical concern.”
In April, DeVasto launched “Living with PFAS,” an oral history project that aims to gather and preserve personal stories from people who, either by choice or circumstance, have been living or working around the seemingly ubiquitous chemicals.
The effort is modest so far, but DeVasto hopes to grow it. She’s interested in how the chemicals have affected people’s health as well as their surroundings. Anyone with a story is welcome to contribute, and she’s interested in a range of experiences.
“We know that PFAS can impact our health, but it can also impact our environment, the animals, our hobbies like fishing; its impacting policy work and workplaces,” DeVaso said. “So, in my mind, is the door is open. It doesn’t have to only be health impacts. But those are a large portion of what I’ve been hearing the stories come from so far.”
Michigan residents, scientists, activists, farmers and public leaders have contributed so far, but she’s not solely interested in stories from Michigan. The pollutants are a global problem and personal stories are welcome from anywhere.
Participants can submit stories in several ways, whether in writing or though an interview by phone or Zoom. DeVasto hopes to expand to in-person conversations at some point. The GVSU Special Collections and University Archives is helping transcribe and preserve the accounts.
DeVasto, who is originally from Wisconsin, said she began learning about PFAS through her partner, a geologist who does environmental work. When she moved to Grand Rapids a couple years ago, her experience as a researcher in science communication proved valuable to colleagues at the university working in the PFAS realm, she said.
From there, she began digging deeper into PFAS issues in West Michigan, which is home to one of the most severe examples of private drinking water well contamination in the United States — the Wolverine World Wide tannery dumping pollution in the Rockford and Belmont area.
“I began to learn all the different ways that it was impacting my own life,” she said, such as in consumer products or settings like fire departments, where PFAS chemicals are used in firefighting foam. Her bother is a firefighter.
“It just kind of spiraled, as PFAS seems to do.”
By increasing the amount of personal stories in the public discourse, DeVasto said she ultimately hopes to increase that element in policy and decision-making. The goal is familiar to journalists, who often struggle to get residents and others affected by the pollutants to speak on the record due to concerns about stigma, portrayal or unwanted attention.
“I think that when you can combine personal stories with scientific data, it can really improve public understanding and engagement with the issues,” DeVasto said.
“Also, what I’m interested in looking at is how is how layering stories with the scientific data can impact the ways that people engage with this evolving, emerging risk.”
To participate, follow this link to share your PFAS story.