SPBMC is investigating allegations that 3M Company (“3M”), an American multi-national conglomerate, supplied the United States military with millions of dangerous combat earplugs, known as the dual-ended Combat Arms Earplugs, Version 2 (CAEv2), causing servicemen and servicewomen to suffer tinnitus, significant hearing loss and deafness.
In July 2018, the United States Department of Justice announced that 3M agreed to pay $9.1 million dollars to resolve whistleblower allegations under the False Claims Act for failing to disclose the defective design of these earplugs and selling a substandard and dangerous product to the military.
3M sold the earplugs to the military under an exclusive government contract between 2003 and 2015. The earplugs were intended for use in combat zones, and designed to provide soldiers with a single set of plugs that offer two options for hearing protection depending upon how the plugs are worn and the intended use.
The earplugs are double-sided and distinctively colored olive and yellow. With the olive end in, the plugs were intended to provide continuous protection from hazardous noise; and with the yellow end in, provide protection from battlefield impulse noise such as weapons fire or explosive devices, while still allowing the wearer to hear low level noises such as commands from fellow soldiers or approaching enemy combatants.
Aero Technologies, later acquired by 3M, developed the earplugs with a defective design that permits the plugs to loosen in the wearer’s ear and interfere with the formation of a tight seal over the ear canal, thereby failing to protect the wearer from harmful noise levels. 3M has admitted that Aero Technologies knew about the design defect as far back as 2000, and the product testing at that time showed the earplugs were ineffective and given a noise reduction rating (NRR) of 0. Nevertheless, 3M packaged and marketed these earplugs to the military with an NRR of 22.
The allegations of 3M’s fraudulent conduct reveal a disturbing violation of the health and welfare of military service members. Noise remains a major public health problem, but the prevalence of hearing loss and tinnitus in the military population are far greater than the general public. Almost every soldier, sailor, airman or marine will be exposed to hazardous noise levels at some point in their career. In fact the two most prevalent service connected disabilities for veterans in the United States at the end of the fiscal year 2012 were tinnitus, affecting 115,638 veterans (9.7%) and hearing loss, affecting 69, 326 veterans (5.8%).
SPBMC remains committed to holding major corporations accountable for supplying dangerous products, in particular, products that directly impact the health and welfare of service members. Affected military members who may have used these distinctive yellow and olive earplugs in combat zones between 2003 and 2015 should contact SPBMC to understand your options for filing suit and protecting your rights.