Kansas is most known for farming and wheat production, but the "Breadbasket of the World" is also known for its historic aviation industry, which started in 1910. A demand for high friction airplane brakes prompted manufacturers to begin using asbestos. Seven years later the resilient, fire-resistant mineral was used to insulate machinery in the state's first chemical plant, Harcros, founded in 1917 in Kansas City.Find Top Doctors in Kansas
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Kansas City continued to open chemical and power plants over the following decades, exposing workers to the toxic mineral known to cause mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer. Kansas City has more occurrences of asbestos-related diseases than nearly every other city in the state.
Individuals are at an elevated risk of asbestos diseases if they worked in Kansas’ large aircraft manufacturing and maintenance industry. This industry mainly affected workers in Wichita, which is known as the “Air Capital of the World.” The aircraft company Cessna has more than 8,000 employees in Wichita, making it one of the top employers in the city. Like other aerospace companies, it used asbestos in products such as airplane brakes, which dealt with significant friction and were periodically replaced. This use has led to mesothelioma in some former aircraft mechanics.
Boeing, the world’s leading aerospace company, also has a large presence in Kansas and has been responsible for some of the state’s asbestos-related illnesses. With 14,000 current or former employees in Kansas, Boeing’s actions have an ongoing impact in statewide health. When it came to asbestos legislation, however, Boeing stayed ahead of the curve. It began identifying and substituting asbestos materials in the late 1970s. By the early 1990s, asbestos was almost entirely eliminated from the company’s products. Because the company was proactive, it tends to be immune to asbestos litigation. Most asbestos claims against the company are dismissed or settled out of court for a small amount.
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The Mid-America Refining Company (MARCO) was a petroleum refinery in Chanute which operated from the 1940s to 1981. Asbestos was used throughout the refinery to insulate high-heat machines and processes, putting refinery workers at risk of being exposed to asbestos. After 1981, the site was abandoned and became an environmental hazard. Leftover oil and petroleum products began contaminating surrounding soil and groundwater. In 1994 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) investigated the site and found a slew of other hazardous materials, including asbestos. It initiated an immediate cleanup effort, which ended in the late 1990s. As part of the cleanup, the EPA removed nearly 190,000 tons of contaminated soil.
Between 1981 and the 1994 EPA inspection, the MARCO facility was an ongoing threat to public health. The contaminants were not publicly known, and the area was readily accessible to nearby residents. Neighborhood children even used the abandoned area as a playground. These individuals may have been exposed to any number of hazardous materials, including the facility’s asbestos.
In 2005 and 2006 the Kansas Department of Corrections (KDC) renovated a Topeka prison dormitory. Before beginning the abatement project, the KDC did not inspect for asbestos, which violated the Clean Air Act. The department also failed to take necessary precautions such as providing respirators and training. The EPA inspected the area in 2010 and found that the KDC was in violation. However, the inspection found no asbestos-containing materials in the construction debris. The EPA cited the KDC and ordered the department to perform necessary inspections in future renovations.
In the months following the citation, the KDC allocated $170,000 to check for asbestos materials in other corrections facilities. Workers inspected pipe insulation, floor and ceiling tiles and other construction materials likely to contain asbestos. Workers then removed any materials found to contain the mineral.
Because of increasing numbers of asbestos lawsuits, Kansas and other states created tort reform statutes that limit the amount of damages a plaintiff can recover. This statute, which became effective in Kansas on July 1, 1987, can limit compensatory and punitive damages awarded in asbestos-related lawsuits. This means plaintiffs and spouses may be awarded less for pain and suffering, mental anguish and other claims not directly related to medical expenses.
Statutes of this nature are the result of asbestos manufacturers claiming they shouldn’t have to pay excessive punitive damages multiple times. They have argued the purpose of punitive damages is to punish the guilty party for its injurious conduct, not compensate the victim. If the manufacturer has already paid punitive damages in a prior asbestos lawsuit, they won’t have to pay as much or possibly any amount of punitive damages in future asbestos lawsuits. Not all states have this kind of statute, but Texas does and their supreme court’s definition of the purpose of punitive damages helps to explain the statute:
“Punitive damages are not designed or intended to compensate or enrich individual victims. Instead, the purpose of punitive damages is to punish a party for its ‘outrageous, malicious, or otherwise morally culpable conduct’ and to deter it and others from committing the same or similar acts in the future.”
Victims of asbestos exposure can still sue if they can prove their injuries were caused by asbestos exposure. Both wrongful death and personal injury cases in Kansas have a two-year statute of limitations, meaning plaintiffs must begin proceedings within two years of the original diagnosis.
People diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases in Kansas can and do file personal injury lawsuits in Kansas, but few of them make it to a court trial. Many asbestos manufacturers settle outside of court, while others have set up trust funds for victims.
City of Wichita v. National Gypsum Company: One notable asbestos-related lawsuit came before the reforms. It was brought by the city of Wichita against National Gypsum Company, a major manufacturer of asbestos-containing building materials. Gypsum sold asbestos-containing materials to be used in Century II, Wichita’s civic cultural center. Wichita representatives argued that National Gypsum misrepresented the products and subsequently caused a public health risk. In 1996 the Court of Appeals found National Gypsum guilty of fraudulently misrepresenting the asbestos materials and concealing existing health concerns.
Reef v. Georgia Pacific: In 1965, James Reef began his career as a carpenter, an occupation now known for its risk of asbestos exposure. Throughout his career, Reef worked with asbestos-containing products, including insulation, drywall and joint compound paste. Reef was diagnosed with mesothelioma in October 2012 and later filed suit against the companies that made the products to which he was exposed, including Georgia Pacific, which made joint compound paste that Reef used for 12 years. Georgia Pacific was the only company to take the case to trial, and the jury decided that Reef’s exposure to insulation was the primary cause of his mesothelioma, not Georgia Pacific’s joint compound paste.
If you’ve been exposed to asbestos and are concerned about developing a disease later in life, make sure to take good care of your health and tell your primary care physician about your exposure history. Your doctor can keep a close watch on your pulmonary health and may conduct tests to screen for early signs of asbestos-related disease.
Matt Mauney is an award-winning journalist with nearly a decade of professional writing experience. He joined Asbestos.com in 2016, and he spends much of his time reading, analyzing and reporting on mesothelioma research articles to ensure people in the mesothelioma community know the latest medical advancements. Prior to joining Asbestos.com, Matt was a reporter at the Orlando Sentinel. Matt also edits some of the pages on the website. He also holds a certificate in health writing from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Read More