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In 2003, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) reported that auditory system injuries, including full or partial hearing loss and tinnitus, were the third most common type of service-connected disability.
But while dangerous levels of sound are an unavoidable aspect of combat zones, many military personnel may have been needlessly exposed to hearing loss by using defective combat earplugs distributed by 3M.
What Are 3M Dual-Ended Combat Arms Earplugs?
Minneapolis-based 3M manufactured these dual-ended earplugs for hearing protection from close range firearms and other loud impact noises.
It’s a common precaution to use ear and eye protection when firing weapons for training or target practice. In these situations, soldiers and civilians use ear protection that is bulky, and that typically blocks out all types of noise.
“According to reports, 3M knew of these design defects but knowingly sold them to the US military from 2003-2015.”
Due to the defective design, the earplugs can slightly loosen and subtly move out of the ear canal just enough for the loud sounds to cause hearing damage.
However, in combat zones, the military needs to balance the need for hearing protection with soldiers’ needs to communicate quickly and effectively. The 3M dual-ended Combat Arms Earplugs were designed to do just that.
Each earplug had two sides: an olive end that blocked out all sound, and a yellow end that blocked out loud, battlefield sounds while allowing spoken communication to be heard.
Injuries due to 3M Dual-Ended Combat Arms Earplugs
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, auditory injuries are one of the most common types of service-related disabilities.
Prior to the development of Combat Arms Earplugs, ear protection was not mandatory within the Armed Services.
But as the plan to deploy millions of CAEv2 earplugs into combat took effect, military audiologists predicted to see a steep decline in auditory injuries.
However, between 2001 and 2006, during part of the time that 3M’s earplugs were standard issue to service members, disability payments for hearing loss and tinnitus increased by 319%.
According to the Department of Defense 3, symptoms of combat-related hearing problems include:
- Difficulty hearing someone talking three feet away.
- Difficulty understanding what people are saying.
- Buzzing or ringing in the ears.
- A feeling of “fullness” in the ears after leaving a noisy area, such as a concert venue.
How were they defective?
Without the necessary protection of adequate noise reduction, thousands of U.S. servicemembers may have unknowingly suffered permanent hearing loss and auditory damage from the din of gunfire and explosions, resulting in injury, pain and suffering, loss of consortium, and medical bills. 2
While the inner workings of the earplugs may have done their job, an issue with how the plugs fit into the ear caused hearing damage in some who used them.
The design was too short to maintain a proper seal in the ears of all the soldiers who used them, and the earplugs often became loosened in the ear without the wearer’s knowledge.
When these soldiers encountered explosions and battlefield sounds, the damaging noise went around the earplugs and into the wearer’s ear canal.
“The defect left those who expected to be protected with no noise protection at all.”
The Combat Arms Earplugs, Version 2 (CAEv2) are dual-ended with the intention of offering the wearer two levels of protection. One end fits into the ear canal, blocking the loud noises of gunshots, explosions, aircraft, and bombs.
The other end sits outside of the ear canal, also blocking noise from entering the ear canal. 3
The problem with the earplugs is that the portion made to fit inside the ear canal was not long enough. After just a short amount of time of being in the ear, the earplug would loosen imperceptibly and the loud noises troops face every day would enter the ear.
During testing, Aearo personnel rolled back flanges on the non-inserted side (yellow or olive) to prevent the earplugs from loosening.
When 3M bought the company and took over Aearo’s military contract, the scientist and lab technician who’d tested the Combat Arms earplugs joined 3M.
Service members who used 3M dual-ended Combat Arms Earplugs during their military service between 2003 and 2015 and suffered permanent hearing loss or tinnitus may be entitled to compensation.
“Compensation may cover decreased quality of life, depression, anxiety and other problems caused by hearing damage.”
Tinnitus and hearing loss are both very common conditions among veterans. However, until recently, injured veterans may have had difficulty proving that the defective earplugs caused their injuries.
Before the settlement of the 3M Combat Arms Earplugs lawsuit made headlines around the country, many may not have even been aware that the earplugs caused their injuries. Now, however, they do.