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Military Hearing Loss: Information on Causes, Types and 3M Lawsuits

Hundreds of thousands of military veterans have been diagnosed with profound hearing loss as a result of being exposed to loud noise during their time in uniform.

The armed forces were supposed to provide military service members with protection to keep this from happening, especially when service members were deployed overseas. However, some of these protection devices were defective, and retired service members not suffer from hearing problems.

Attorneys are filing hearing loss lawsuits against 3M, now the owner of the company that made the combat earplugs.

Some Hearing Protection Devices Have Been Defective

In theory, ear protection should provide soldiers with adequate protection from loud noises. Active duty service members were given combat earplugs as part of their standard issue equipment when they were sent overseas. Even soldiers serving stateside were often given earplugs for their hearing protection.

These combat earplugs were originally designed and marketed by Aearo Technologies. This company entered into a contract with the U.S. government in 2006 to provide combat earplugs. 3M bought the company in 2007 and continued selling the earplugs to the U.S. government. When 3M bought Aearo, it became legally responsible for all of the actions of the predecessor company.

Hearing Loss Disability Claims for Military Members

Hearing loss claims remain some of the most common types of disability claims. Many of these are related to defective 3M earplugs.

How Combat Earplugs Were Supposed to Work

The 3M Combat Earplugs were dual-ended. When service members had the yellow end of the earplugs in their ears, they could hear orders and their fellow soldiers speaking. When they turned the earplugs and put the olive-colored end in their ear, it was supposed to provide them with hearing protection from loud noises.

The earplugs had a noise reduction rating of 22. This means that any loud noise would be reduced to 132.5 decibels, which is below the level that could cause instant hearing damage. These were supposed to prevent military hearing loss.

How Combat Earplugs Caused Noise Induced Hearing Loss

However, reports emerged that these earplugs were defective. The reported problem is that these combat earplugs were not long enough. Thus, they could not be fully inserted into the ear canal to block hazardous noise levels.

Without combat earplugs that fit snugly into the inner ear, service members were unprotected from the loud noises that are risk factors for hearing loss. Earplugs that are too short are not able to remain in place to provide the necessary hearing protection.

Soldiers who were exposed to loud noise as part of their military service did not have the noise reduction that they thought when they wear hearing protection. This resulted in hearing loss for hundreds of thousands of veterans.

How Service Connected Hearing Loss Happens

Military service often involves being around loud noises. Military equipment is certainly not common. Soldiers who work with this equipment on a daily basis will continuously be exposed to high decibel levels. Ideally, they will be issued hearing protection as part of their equipment to keep them from suffering a service hearing impairment.

Here are some of the loud noises that can cause hearing loss and tinnitus:

  • helicopters and aircraft
  • small arms and machine gun fire
  • other blast exposure
  • ambulances
  • missiles
  • grenades
  • tanks
  • engines

Military service means routinely being exposed to hazardous noise. In fact, military noise exposure is one of the most common causes of hearing loss.

Other Causes of Military Hearing Loss

Besides exposure to high noise levels, head trauma can also cause hearing loss. It can physically damages the ears and the bones within them.

In addition, head trauma can:

  • fracture the inner ear
  • damage the cochlea
  • rupture or cause other permanent damage to the ear drum

The Decibel Levels in Military Service

To give you an idea of exactly how dangerous some military sounds can be, imagine that the average football stadium at a key moment in the game can reach 100-120 decibels. Even the decibel level during one famous football play that literally shook the ground reached 137 decibels.

Now, compare this to sounds to which service members are routinely exposed. Explosions and IEDs can reach 180 decibels. Rifle fire and machine guns can range from 160-190 decibels.

This is louder than the loudest crowd, and the noise to right in the service member’s ear. Being exposed to these loud sounds on a daily basis, or even once (in the event of an explosion) can cause long-term damage. The loudest sounds can cause severe hearing impairment.

Other Causes of Hearing Loss and Tinnitus

Hearing loss and tinnitus do not just come from loud noises. Traumatic brain injury can also impact the areas of the brain that are responsible for hearing. Damage to the brain can impact your ability to process what you are hearing.

In addition, stress and cases of post-traumatic stress disorder are also connected with tinnitus. Stress can either cause the beginnings of tinnitus for military personnel or worsen an existing condition.

Military Hearing Loss Is a Common Injury

Hearing loss is one of the most common service-related injuries, both among soldiers who have been deployed and those who remained stateside.

According to the Hearing Health Foundation, 1.16 million veterans received disability benefits for hearing loss in 2017, and 1.79 million veterans received compensation for tinnitus in that year. These are actually the two most common disability claims in front of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The VA pays out many billions of dollars each year in disability compensation and medical care just for hearing loss and tinnitus since they are the most prevalent service connected disability.

Diagnosing Hearing Loss and Tinnitus

Hearing damage may not be readily apparent during the time that a service-member is in information. Damage to the ear and ear canal may happen over time, and symptoms may not show up until after retirement.

Some of the early symptoms of damage to the ear can include:

  • Difficulty hearing high pitched sounds (such as doorbells)
  • Trouble understanding conversation in a noisy place
  • Always needing to ask someone to speak more slowly or more loudly
  • Difficulty picking up certain consonants
  • Hypersensitivity to certain sounds
  • Some speech and sound seems muffled

Early detection can help treat hearing loss. When one begins to experience issues, they should go to a hearing center for a full diagnosis.

The Different Types of Noise Induced Hearing Loss

There are two primary types of hearing loss. They are:

Conductive Hearing Loss – this means that sounds do not reach the inner ear because they cannot make their way through the middle ear. Soft sounds become very difficult to hear, and louder sounds may become muffled. One cause of this type of hearing loss is trauma to the ear drum.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss – this is the type of hearing loss that military service members commonly suffer from. This is usually caused by exposure to loud noises. Here, sound cannot pass through the inner and middle ear. This type of hearing loss involves damage to the auditory nerve, and it is usually permanent.

Hearing Tests for Military Service Members

There are two primary tests given to patients complaining about hearing loss: the Rinne and Weber tests. This will help doctors figure out whether you have conductive or sensorineural hearing loss.

In the Rinne test, the doctor will place a tuning fork near and next to your ear to measure what sounds you can hear and when you can no longer hear them.

In the Weber test, the doctor places the tuning fork in the middle of the head, and the patient informs them whether they can hear the sound in one, both or no ears.

These are both easy tests to conduct, and each hearing test will give the patient a quick read on whether they have suffered any hearing damage.

Other tests to diagnose military hearing loss include:

  • Physical exams of the ear
  • General screening tests, such as a whisper test
  • App-based hearing tests
  • Audiometer hearing tests

The Harmful Effects of Severe Tinnitus

Tinnitus is one of the more misunderstood service-related disabilities. It is a constant or intermittent ringing in one’s ears. It can occur in one or both of the ears.

Essentially, it is even worse than just hearing background noise because there is no noise that is causing it, and you cannot turn off any sound.

Tinnitus patients report debilitating side effects that can impact their mental health because a continuous noise can rapidly reduce someone’s physical and mental well-being.

Auditory Processing Disorder from Military Service

In addition to hearing loss, military service members are also at risk for auditory processing disorders.

This can result from exposure to blasts, loud noises and neurotrama. Some of the symptoms of auditory processing disorder include:

  • trouble understanding speech when it is noisy
  • difficulty distinguishing between similar sounds
  • struggles with following directions

This is not hearing loss, but it is hearing damage that comes from the loud sounds and hazards of military service. Here, the brain does not hear sounds in a normal way because of trauma.

What VA Health Care Does for Injured Service Members

The VA helps injured and disabled service members in two primary ways:

  • The agency provides either free or heavily-subsidized care to help with hearing loss (this could include therapy and paying for hearing aids)
  • Disabled veterans receive a tax-free monthly payment for their disability. The amount of their payment depends on their disability rating.

Injured veterans must file with the Department of Veterans Affairs for benefits for injuries that they sustained during their military service. Regardless of how you have lost hearing, you should always look to file for disabled veterans benefits.

Treating Noise Induced Tinnitus

Oftentimes, tinnitus is not a curable condition. In other words, one may never fully return to normal hearing. The best doctors can do is to manage or reduce the symptoms. Still, there are some treatments that may improve an injured veteran’s quality of life and help them learn to live with a condition that may never go away.

One way to treat tinnitus is through cognitive behavioral therapy. This will address the service member’s reaction to tinnitus. The condition itself may not go away, but therapy can help the patient improve how they manage and deal with the constant sound. It can change service members’ thought processes to help them live with tinnitus.

Treating Other Forms of Hearing Loss

One of the most common ways to help veterans who have suffered hearing loss is by giving them hearing aids. A hearing aid will not cure hearing loss. It works by amplifying sound, making it easier for someone to hear.

There are three parts of a hearing aid:

  • The microphone receives sound and changes it into a digital signal
  • The amplifier magnifies the strength of the digital signal
  • The speaker transmits the digital signal into the ear

Hearing aids may also work for cases of tinnitus when the rining sound keeps someone from hearing normally.

VA health care will cover the cost of hearing aids for veterans with a disability. It may also cover the cost of other therapies to help veterans increase their hearing thresholds.

In addition, sound therapy may also help service members deal with hearing loss. Health providers will use music or other forms of sound that help the inner ear and muscles exercise and hopefully regain some strength.

Sound therapy can also be used to treat tinnitus. This works in a different way. Here, the patient is retrained in how they process the sound to mask it. The patient will still be given another more calming sound, such as ocean waves, with which they can associate the ringing from tinnitus.

Some Conditions Are Reversible Hearing Loss

While sensorineural hearing loss is often permanent, there are some ways to reverse some types of hearing loss. In some cases, patients will naturally regain some of the hearing that they lost within a short period of time.

In other cases, surgical outcomes may help a patient. Some may need cochlear implants, and these can sometimes reverse hearing loss. However, many instances of hearing loss from the hazardous noise of military service are permanent.

The Armed Forces Cannot Be Sued for Noise Induced Hearing Loss

One place where injured servicemembers looking for justice may think of turning is to the United States Government. However, government support must come in the form of benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Active duty service members and retired military personnel cannot file a lawsuit against the military for noise exposure. There is a holding from a court case called the Feres

Doctrine that keeps soldiers from suing for injuries suffered during military service. Until recently, this even kept them from suing for injuries suffered through medical malpractice from military doctors.

Hearing Conservation Programs in the Military

The Department of Defense is directed by federal regulations to eliminate noise-related hearing loss in service members.

However, the DoD has not exactly been doing a good job at this, considering the number of veterans receiving disability benefits for hearing loss. Uniformed services must comply with OSHA regulations, and they have their own specific regulations that are even more stringent than OSHA.

They must address risk factors for hearing loss among soldiers.

Providing hearing protection is one element of a hearing conservation program. However, the combat earplugs provided to service members for over a decade were defective, meaning the hearing conservation program was ineffective.

The Manufacturer Knew that the Hearing Protection Was Defective

For active duty troops and veterans who have been injured, the infuriating part is that the company that made these combat earplugs knew all along that they were defective, yet they continued to sell their products to the U.S. military.

The government sued 3M under the False Claims Act, claiming that 3M defrauded taxpayers by knowingly contracting with the government to sell earplugs that did not work.

The lawsuit claimed that 3M knew that the earplugs were too short to work, but it did not tell the government. 3M paid $9.1 million to the government to settle the lawsuit without admitting fault.

The issue would have never come to light had it not been for a whistleblower reporting the issue to the government.

Manufacturers of Defective Hearing Protection Can Be Sued

If your hearing loss or tinnitus was caused by defective hearing protection, you can file a lawsuit against 3M. Already, hundreds of thousands of lawsuits have been filed in this case.

Not only did 3M lose some of the initial cases, but they were hit with punitive damages by a jury for the audacity of their conduct. In the first verdict, three soldiers were awarded a total of $7.2 million, including $2.1 million in punitive damages each for the soldiers.

With over 250,000 cases pending, one would have to think that 3M will reach a global settlement.

If you have lost hearing from military noise, you may be entitled to financial compensation if it was caused by defective hearing protection.

Contact the lawyers at Rosenfeld Injury Attorneys to learn more about your legal rights and how you may file a lawsuit. We offer free consultations, and you owe us nothing unless we help you recover financially.