The United States military utilized 3M’s dual-ended Combat Arms version 2 earplugs (CAEv2) during domestic training and foreign conflicts from 2003 through 2015. The stem of 3M’s combat earplugs were designed too short and did not fit properly to protect the inner ear from damage. It is believed that thousands of veterans now suffer from acute acoustic trauma (AAT), significant hearing loss and tinnitus. Attorneys allege that 3M, headquartered in St. Paul, Minnesota, and its subsidiary Aearo Technologies, Inc., knew they were selling defective combat earplugs to the US military.
Department of Justice 3M Combat Arms Earplug Lawsuit
In 2018, the Department of Justice (DOJ) sued both 3M and Aearo Technologies Inc. alleging violations of the False Claims Act by selling or causing to be sold defective earplugs to the Defense Logistics Agency. Specifically, the United States alleged that 3M and Aearo Technologies, Inc. “knew the CAEv2 was too short for proper insertion into users’ ears and that the earplugs could loosen imperceptibly and therefore did not perform well for certain individuals.” The United States further alleged that 3M did not disclose this design defect to the military. The United States lawsuit was filed under the qui tam provision of the False Claims Act, which was made possible by a whistleblower.
On July 26, 2018, 3M settled the lawsuit with the DOJ for $9.1 million. As a result, the whistleblower received nearly $2 million. U.S. Attorney Sherri Lyndon for the District of South Carolina commented on the DOJ lawsuit, stating “in this case in particular, we are proud to defend the integrity of our military programs and ensure that our men and women in uniform are adequately protected as they serve our country.” Director of the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command’s Major Procurement fraud Unit, Frank Robey, said “Properly made safety equipment, for use by our Soldiers, is vital to our military’s readiness. Our agents will respond robustly to protect the safety of our military.”
How 3M Combat Earplugs Were Intended to Work
3M’s dual-ended combat earplugs were designed and marketed to allow soldiers to hear commands while still protecting their ears. The yellow portion of the earplug was to be inserted into the ear. A hole leads from the middle of the earplug to the tip of the yellow end of the earplug, allowing sound to travel down the channel. 3M claimed that there was a “special filter” within this channel that allowed lower-level sounds to pass with limited interruption but restricted high-level impulsive noises. 3M claimed the more intense the impulse, the more it would be limited. Unfortunately, 3M’s claims regarding their defective combat earplugs were false.
Injuries Related to Defective 3M Combat Earplugs
- Acute acoustic trauma (AAT): An injury to the eardrum as a result of a very loud, short duration noise, such as an explosion or gunshots. The severity of symptoms can range from pain to hearing loss. Acute loud noise exposure results in inflammation and lower oxygen supply to the inner ear. If treated with corticosteroids and hyperbaric oxygen therapy within three days of injury, the symptoms can be reversible.
- Tinnitus: The perception of sound when no actual external noise is present. Tinnitus is frequently referred to as “ringing in the ears,” but can also include buzzing, whistling, swooshing, buzzing, or clicking noises. Tinnitus can be a temporary or chronic injury. Extreme cases of tinnitus can be debilitating.
- Hearing loss: When the hairs or nerve cells of the inner ear are damaged by loud noises, transmission of electrical signals are subsequently impaired, resulting in hearing loss. Additionally, a loud blast can cause a sudden change in pressure and rupture the eardrum. Hearing loss is typically a permanent injury.
Literature Regarding Military Hearing Loss and Noise Protection
The objective of the study was “to investigate whether the occlusion effect and hearing attenuation produced by 3M Combat Arms Ear Plugs (CAEP) affects balance when compared to no hearing protection.” 3M Combat Arms Ear Plugs “are hearing preservation devices utilized during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Our pilot data show no decrement in balance with utilization of these combat hearing preservation devices.”
The Expeditionary Medical Encounter Database was used to identify military personnel who survived blast-related injury, and it was linked with outpatient medical databases to obtain diagnoses of hearing loss and tinnitus. The prevalence of ear injuries was 30.7%. The most common ear injury diagnoses were inner or middle ear injury involving tinnitus and tympanic membrane (TM) rupture. Personnel with TM rupture had higher odds of hearing loss.
“The Combat Arms Earplug, developed specifically for use by the military personnel, represented devices that attenuated impulse noise using small orifices.” The passive, Combat Arms Earplugs used by military personnel did not appear to be detrimental to speech communications if the speech was at an average conversational level and the listener was actively attending to the signal.
A paper describing in-field research on the performance of enhancement protection systems (HEPS), including the yellow end of 3M’s Combat Arms Earplug. Squad members who wore the Combat Arms Earplug experienced difficultly communicating. A Squad member noted “it was hard to whisper, and i relied more on hand signals” Others stated that they could not hear twins and branches crack, thereby affecting their ability to gauge their own noise when moving, and that they “could not hear as well generally.” Many Squad members commented that they felt “compromised,” and that they could hear their heartbeat and breathing more than normal, which suggest and occlusion effect. Other Squad members indicated that they experienced localization issues: “I could not tell direction” and “it was hard to localize.”
Both Squad and Training Officers reported during the post-land debriefings that when using the Combat Arms Earplug’s yellow end, the camp was seen before it was heard, which has clear implications for Army operations. ever Squad member voiced this contention with the Combat Arms Earplug.
A Squad member indicated that his Combat Arms Earplug suction came loose while running. Others expressed frustration that they could not communicate while wearing Combat Arms Earplugs. “I had a difficult time hearing whispers,” and “if I whispered, they didn’t hear me, but when i whistled, they did.” Additionally, many compared the Combat Arms Earplug to a foam earplug. “Combat Arms Earplugs did not distinguish itself from a foam earplug,” and “there was no difference between Combat Arms Earplugs and any other foam earplug.”
The study concluded by finding that Combat Arms Earplugs were “at a clear disadvantage in scenarios wherein auditory detection and communications are required.” Additionally, “of particular concern is the fact that the Training Officers noted that the Combat Arms Earplugs resulted in squad members speaking louder than what was tactically sound, which could result in their being more readily detected by the enemy.”
3M Combat Arms Earplug Lawsuit
Call the Hollis Law Firm at 1-800-701-3672 if you are a US veteran that utilized 3M’s Combat Arms Earplugs and have subsequently experienced hearing loss or tinnitus. All calls and case evaluations are free and carry no obligation.
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