Veteran Hearing Loss

Hearing loss from defective 3M military ear plugs

There are 2,694,980 diagnosed cases of tinnitus and hearing loss among U.S. military veterans. To some extent, hearing loss is a natural part of aging. About 25 percent of Americans ages 55 to 64 have some degree of hearing loss. This percentage increases to 50 percent by age 65. Causes of hearing loss include: wear-and-tear on the inner ear, heredity, earwax buildup, tumors, head trauma, ear infections, high dose medications, ruptured eardrums, and occupational or recreational exposure to loud noises. However, a $9.1 million whistleblower lawsuit against 3M exposed a new (and preventable) cause of military servicemember hearing loss.

Types of Hearing Loss

The defective 3M military ear plugs caused two types of hearing loss:

  • Tinnitus – Commonly called “ringing in the ears,” the nature of tinnitus varies. Some individuals hear a constant din of crickets, hissing, or screeching, while others may experience buzzing, ringing, or roaring. Most of the time, tinnitus is near constant, with fluctuations in perception, depending on how much noise is in the room. In rare cases, tinnitus sounds may beat along with one’s heart or play a continuous musical loop over and over again.
  • Hearing Loss – Most people experience a gradual loss in hearing. Over time, it becomes harder to hear conversations at normal volume and more difficult to enunciate while speaking. The symptoms can take a decade or longer to manifest, especially among U.S. military veterans who become accustomed to functioning in loud environments. Sensorineural hearing loss caused by defective ear plugs is permanent, but can be treated.

Symptoms of Hearing Loss

Early symptoms of hearing damage includes:

  • Perceiving others as having muffled speech
  • Difficulty understanding words, especially in noisy, crowded rooms
  • Inability to wake up to an alarm clock
  • Troubling distinguishing consonants
  • Straining to hear TV/film dialogue
  • Difficulty hearing children and people with high-pitched voices
  • Frequently asking people to speak slower, clearer, and louder
  • Avoiding social situations due to the anxiety and frustration of conversing with others

How Hearing Loss Occurs

You hear sounds when sound wave hit the outer ear, causing vibrations at the eardrum. The eardrum and three small middle ear drum bones amplify the sound vibrations, which then pass through fluid in the inner ear, a snail-shaped structure called the “cochlea.” Thousands of tiny hairs in the cochlea translate the sound vibrations into electrical signals transmitted to the brain to help distinguish one sound from another. Hearing loss occurs when one or more of these structures are damaged through exposure to unusually high decibel levels.

On a typical day, you may whisper (30 decibels), talk (60 decibels), or wash a load of laundry (78 decibels). These are all normal and acceptable noise levels. Once you get into heavy city traffic (80), power lawn mower (90), drill (100), or rock concert (110) territory, your risk of hearing damage begins. Military servicemembers are routinely exposed to injury-level sounds like ambulances (120), jet engines at takeoff (140), shotgun blasts (165), and rocket launches (180).

You could feasibly mow the lawn for eight hours before the noise takes a toll on your hearing. You could be at a rock concert for two hours and not suffer any long-term hearing damage. However, 15 minutes or  less of unprotected hearing around ambulances, jet engines, gun shots, or rocket launchers is enough to sustain real, permanent harm.

While these noise sources cannot be avoided in the natural line of duty, the use of proper ear plugs can reduce noise levels by as much as 35 decibels to offer better protection.

Your Hearing Loss May Have Been Preventable

The whistleblower lawsuit was initiated by Moldex-Metric (a competitor of 3M) under the False Claims Act, which allows private parties the opportunity to sue for fraud against the government. As part of the settlement, Moldex-Metric will receive $1.9 million. The rest of the money paid to the U.S. Department of Justice will go toward covering the ongoing medical expenses of veterans administered through the VA.

According to the July 2018 settlement, military earplug manufacturer 3M (formerly Aearo Technologies) knew about a defect with their Dual-Ended Combat Arms™ Earplugs, Version 2 (CAEv2) since at least 2000, but concealed test results from the U.S. military in order to secure the contract.

The earplugs were dual-fit, designed with a yellow end (to use in an open position when speaking) and a dark green end (to use in a blocked position during combat situations). In the blocked position, the ear plugs were supposed to conform to the sidewalls of the ear canals and butt up against the eardrum to keep out all sound. The lawsuit alleged that the short length of the ear plugs allowed harmful sounds to travel around the exterior of the plugs to the eardrum. Internal test results revealed a tendency for the ear plugs to gradually loosen and move out of position in “blocked” mode, thus rendering them ineffective – but this information was not provided to U.S. military personnel.

3M’s Dual-Ended Combat Arms™ Earplugs, Version 2 (CAEv2) were standard military issue from 2002-2016, during overseas engagements in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, the Indian Ocean, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. The earplugs were also released commercially and may have been used by the United States Border Patrol.

Treatments for Hearing Damage

Most sensorineural hearing loss is caused by damage to the inner ear hair cells and/or auditory nerve. These hair cells do not repair or regenerate themselves and cannot be medically treated once damaged. While treatments are not curative, they can at least improve quality of life.

Hearing Loss Treatment

Common treatments for hearing loss include:

  • External hearing aids – Worn behind or within the ear, these devices amplify and clarify sounds.
  • Assistive listening devices – Helps with watching television, listening to the radio, or talking on the telephone.
  • Surgically-inserted cochlear implants – Tiny electronic devices directly stimulate the auditory nerve in cases of severe or total hearing loss.

Tinnitus Treatment

Possible treatments for tinnitus include:

  • External hearing aids – Can be used to drown out the ringing and make other sounds (like voices) louder.
  • Neuromodulators – High-pitched beeps can down-regulate nerve activity to reduce episodes of tinnitus.
  • Music therapy – Listening to classical music has shown to help the brain filter out the ringing sounds.
  • AM-101 gel – Using this drug helps prevent nerve damage that may result from long-term tinnitus.
  • Retraining Therapy – By exposing patients to specific noise frequencies, a person is conditioned to the tinnitus.

Costs Associated with Hearing Loss

Some of the costs associated with hearing loss are direct – like purchasing hearing aids and assistive technology, copays to see a hearing specialist, and surgery. Hearing aids cost anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000. Then there are maintenance costs for repairs and replacement batteries. Other costs are more difficult to calculate precisely – like lost wages, loss of potential income, and loss of productivity.

By some estimates, the lifetime cost of hearing loss can total over $417,000 for hospital stays, medications, doctor’s visits, therapies, special education, home modifications, and lost wages. Lastly, how does one put a price tag on mental anguish, hurt relationships, anxiety, depression, and loss of enjoyment in life?

All too often, payment from the VA and disability insurance does not cover all the expenses a hearing loss disability incurs. Digital hearing aids cost anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000. By some estimates, the hospital stays, medications, doctor appointments, special education, house modifications, and lost wages could cost an individual over $417,000 in a lifetime.

Your veteran benefits will offset some of these costs, but it may not be enough. A defective device lawsuit could result in additional compensation  to cover:

  • Past, present, and future medical bills (including therapies)
  • The cost of hearing aids, assistive technology, and home modifications
  • Lost wages and future earning potential
  • Emotional pain, suffering, and anguish caused by disability
  • Loss of hobbies and enjoyment in life.

Hearing Loss Affects Quality of Life

The complications of hearing loss can significantly impact your quality of life. Adults with hearing loss often report depression, anxiety, and paranoia that others are angry with them. Individuals with hearing loss are at increased risk of declines in cognitive function, as well as trips and falls. Often, sufferers withdraw from social situations and cope with these difficulties for years before seeking treatment.

There are hidden costs to hearing loss, according to research. The Medical University of South Carolina found that those with hearing loss had 33 percent higher out-of-pocket medical expenses than those without hearing loss. Over 18 months, those with hearing loss spent $14,165 on medical bills, compared to $10,629 for those without.

Hearing difficulties may cause patients to delay or avoid seeking medical care due to the stress of communication with providers. However, evading treatment can lead to increased sickness and more expensive care. Hearing loss may also lead to difficulties in following medical practitioner advice and follow-up, thus leading to additional health problems.

Explore Your Legal Options with Bart Bernard

As of February 2019, the $9.1 million settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice is the only amount paid by 3M for their defective ear plugs. However, awareness is spreading and the claims are growing at a rapid clip. On January 25th, 2019, a motion was filed with the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation requesting that at least right cases pending in four districts in California, Texas, Oklahoma, and Minnesota be transferred to the U.S. District Court in Minnesota (where 3M is located) for review. If the case proceeds to MDL, early discovery processes will be streamlined, with several bellwether trials to strengths and weaknesses of the central argument, followed by individual court hearings to determine compensation.

Bart Bernard is an experienced defective device attorney in Baton Rouge, Louisiana with a track record of multi-million-dollar verdicts. His office is currently accepting 3M defective earplug claims from all 50 U.S. states. All 3M defective earplug lawsuits are being handled on a contingency fee basis, meaning that there are no upfront, out-of-pocket costs for plaintiffs. Legal fees are only payable upon the successful resolution of the lawsuit through settlement or jury award. Contact Bart Bernard for your free consultation and case evaluation. Get it Done Right™

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Last modified: February 22, 2019

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