Military service members already put their lives on the line every day, knowing they may be killed in service to their country. Serious injuries are common in the field, affecting one in ten veterans alive today. But according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, hearing loss and tinnitus are the first and second most common disabilities among veterans.
Explosions, gunfire, and combat vehicles have one thing in common: they are often louder than is safe for the human ear. Hearing loss heightens the immediate risk to soldiers in the field, who may struggle to hear what’s around them or orders meant to save their lives. It also damages their long-term health, often permanently.
Tinnitus is the most common type of hearing damage from loud noise exposure. It’s marked by ringing or other sounds in the ear. This condition affects 15 to 20% of people overall, with a higher percentage found in military personnel.
Specially-designed earplugs are given to service members to protect their hearing. But manufacturing giant 3M, whose Combat Arms Earplugs Version 2 earplugs have been trusted by the military for more than ten years, is now under fire from veterans who wore them and developed hearing damage, hearing loss or tinnitus. A design flaw resulted in the earplugs being too short to seal the ear canal properly, allowing damaging noises and vibrations to get through.
Product liability lawsuits against 3M by nearly 300,000 veterans have been consolidated into the largest multidistrict litigation (MDL) lawsuit in U.S. history. The company has already paid hundreds of millions of dollars to plaintiffs, and many more trials are still to come.
Hearing Damage Can Cause Permanent Suffering for Veterans
There are three categories of hearing loss: sensorineural, conductive, and a combination of the two.
Sensorineural hearing loss is the most common type, including among the military. It occurs when the cochlea (inner ear) or the hearing nerve is damaged. Veterans, especially those nearby blasts or explosions, often contract a “sudden” variation of the condition. Sensorineural hearing loss is permanent but can be alleviated by hearing aids.
Conductive hearing loss happens in the middle or outer ear when sound waves cannot travel all the way through to the inner ear. It is much less common in veterans and can often be reversed via medication or surgery. In a case of mixed hearing loss, patients suffer from both types.
Many veterans also develop auditory processing disorder, in which they score normally on hearing tests but have a hard time understanding speech.
Blast injuries from explosions can compromise the ear itself and the connection between the ear and brain. Blast exposure is linked to decreased sound tolerance. These patients have adverse reactions to everyday sounds, such as basic background noise in public.
One study of 426 active duty and veteran service members found that 33% of active duty and 48% of veterans with blast exposure developed decreased sound tolerance. Studies have also shown that hearing loss commonly results from traumatic brain injuries (TBI), which are prevalent in military service.
All veterans are eligible for disability payments, so long as they are honorably discharged and not injured by personal negligence. In 2020, tinnitus was the most common service-connected disability, with just under 150,000 recipients. Less than 100,000 recipients were compensated for knee injuries, the next most common condition. A 2019 study on 85,000 active duty service members found that the rate of tinnitus more than tripled between 2001 and 2015.
U.S. Army veteran Dave Schible, who developed tinnitus and other permanent hearing damage during his first deployment to Afghanistan in 2004, estimates that he and his colleagues were exposed to blasts and firefights exceeding 130 decibels. Decibels are the unit of measurement for sound. According to the CDC, normal conversation is about 60 decibels, prolonged exposure to more than 70 decibels puts hearing at risk, and more than 120 decibels can cause immediate hearing damage.
Schible’s hearing damage has significantly worsened his quality of life. Hearing aids use static to drown his tinnitus, but they don’t always work, keeping him from sleeping. And asking strangers in public to repeat themselves multiple times is difficult on his self-esteem.
“Sometimes, you just kind of want to hide yourself and just really not go out in public,” he said. “Folks like myself who get flustered after so long just don’t want to really talk to people in general.”
Tinnitus: Symptoms, Long-Term Effects and Treatment
The cochlea has tiny, delicate hair cells that move when your ear receives sound waves. The movement triggers electrical signals from the ear to the brain, which the brain interprets as sound. If these hairs are bent or are broken, such as after regular exposure to dangerously-loud sound, they will send random electrical impulses to your brain, resulting in tinnitus.
Tinnitus usually presents as a ringing in the ears, but it can also be in the form of other phantom sounds like roaring, humming, buzzing, hissing and clicking. It may affect one or both ears at high or low pitches. Sometimes, it’s loud enough to disrupt concentration or the ability to hear external sound.
People with tinnitus may also suffer from stress, fatigue, trouble sleeping or concentrating, memory problems, headaches, depression, anxiety, and difficulty maintaining jobs and relationships.
One 2015 study found that 72% of veterans with tinnitus also had anxiety and 60% had depression. 58% suffered from both.
Researchers at the VA San Diego Healthcare System discovered that both TBI and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) increased the risk of tinnitus, particularly among service members whose TBI resulted from blast exposure.
These hardships can add up fast for veterans, leading to separation from duty, alcohol and drug abuse, and even suicide.
While noise-related tinnitus is incurable, hearing aids, white noise machines for sleep, masking devices that produce continuous soft white noise during the day, and medication may alleviate the symptoms. Therapy may also make life easier by changing how you think and feel about your symptoms. Tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT), usually administered by an audiologist, combines sound masking devices and counseling to make you notice your condition less over time.
The VA San Diego Healthcare System study experimented with deep brain stimulation (DBS) for tinnitus treatment. DBS is currently used to treat psychological and movement disorders, including Parkinson’s disease. Surgically implanted electrodes in the brain are connected to a pulse generator implanted just under the skin. This generator delivers electrical stimulation that disrupts the abnormal impulses produced by tinnitus. Four out of five patients found significant relief with no serious side effects. More clinical trials are planned.
Status of 3M Lawsuits
In 2016, a 3M competitor filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the company, claiming 3M knowingly kept quiet about the design flaw, hid falsified test results and failed to provide proper usage instructions. In 2018, 3M paid the U.S. military a $9.1 million settlement. When that became public, thousands of veterans came forward with their own lawsuits.
In January 2022, two veterans were awarded $110 million, representing the largest sum ever in the massive 3M earplug litigation. Both men suffered hearing loss after using the faulty earplugs while training and deployed. Several other multi-million dollar settlements were awarded in 2021. Despite these significant losses, 3M continues to maintain the safety of their earplugs and that they were unaware of any design flaw.
The $110 million verdict was one of the 3M earplug MDL “bellwether” sample trials related to the earplug cases. These test trials give plaintiffs and defendants an indication of how future cases may be decided and helps them set realistic expectations regarding settlement amounts. The most recent case on March 26 in Florida awarded $58 million to two veterans. 3M has won just five of the 12 cases so far. Four future 2022 trial dates have been set.