(CW: War. The following information contains words or phrases that may trigger a traumatic response in some readers.)
Of the 5 senses, hearing is probably the most critical when it comes to an active-duty military career. So critical that you can’t even be accepted into the armed forces if your hearing ability doesn’t meet a certain standard.
While there are several reasons an adult may suffer from hearing loss, there is overwhelming evidence that noise exposure is the leading cause for permanent damage and tinnitus. Despite the efforts the Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense have made, these two ailments continue to be the top two active-combat related injuries soldiers sustain.
The Numbers Don’t Lie…but 3M might have
The VA’s Office of Research and Development reported in 2020 that 1.3 million veterans received disability benefits for hearing loss and 2.3 million for tinnitus. That’s a lot of people considering that since 1948, the DoD has taken measures to reduce hearing injuries by improving safety measures.
In 2004, CAEv2, or combat arms earplugs, were issued as standard equipment to every active-duty service person in America. Unbeknownst to the US Government, however, those earplugs were defective. 3M, the sole contractor for providing hearing protection to the US Armed Forces, is currently the target of over 200,000 lawsuits alleging that defective earplugs led to hearing loss and tinnitus in soldiers.
Moldex-Metric Inc., a competitor of 3M, filed a whistleblower suit in 2015 alleging that 3M manufacturers knowingly supplied faulty dual-ended combat earplugs (CAEv2) to every service man and woman enlisted between 2002-2015. Moldex claims 3M violated the False Claims Act for over a decade as they continued to supply these plugs to the government.
In 2016, 3M settled with the US Government for $9 million dollars but never acknowledged fault. Since then, injury lawyers have been called to represent individual plaintiffs in a multi-district lawsuit being managed by a central court in Florida. So far, 10 cases have concluded with equal wins and losses for plaintiffs.
Of those 10 cases, the 5 who lost were unable to prove that their hearing loss was directly related to a combat injury sustained while wearing the faulty 3M product. The other 5 case plaintiff’s were awarded substantial settlement amounts. The hope is that 3M will get tired of paying millions of dollars to individuals and offer a settlement to cover the remaining litigation.
How Can You Protect Your Hearing In Combat?
Did you know that aside from crossbows and bayonets, every weapon used in the military produces sound between 140-180dB? That’s 55-95dB louder than what is considered “safe”. For comparison, speech falls in the 50-60dB range, a motorcycle 95dB, and a jet engine 140dB. At 120dB, sound becomes painful, but anything over 85dB can cause permanent damage. This is why hearing protection is critical in the military.
With 3M’s product off the table, military members resort to a variety of protective measures for noise exposure. Some wear similar flange style plugs, others wear foam, but in order to do their job to the best of their ability, soldiers in combat need something a little more advanced.
Enter INVISIO. INVISIO has designed and produced digital earplugs known as TCAPS (tactical communication and protection systems). These headphone-like earplugs offer something only hearing aid wearers have experienced until now. Similar to the most advanced hearing aids, TCAPS use bone conduction and dual microphone systems that allow the earpiece to adjust to its surroundings. If the wearer is surrounded by heavy gunfire or explosions, their hearing protection device will turn those sounds down. Simultaneously, softer sounds such as whispers or creaking floorboards will be amplified.
These fancy gadgets are Bluetooth capable and can also tap into communication systems used between soldiers. This technology isn’t new, but this is the first time it has been employed by active-duty soldiers. Studies are promising for this up and coming tech, which is likely to replace earplugs as standard issued safety equipment.
While this technology won’t prevent all combat related hearing injuries, military personnel are hopeful they will continue seeing such injury reports decline.
As mentioned before, not all hearing loss is related to noise exposure. Not all noise exposure leads to hearing loss, either. But for veterans who suffered permanent damage due to potential negligence, you may be entitled to compensation. It won’t restore your hearing, but just as earplugs have advanced, so has technology to enhance the quality of life for those who suffer hearing loss.