MOBILE, Ala. (WKRG) — Lawsuits are being filed across the country aimed at a product issued to thousands of members of the military. Earplugs are a basic item issued to service members who are sometimes in very loud environments. But the ones bought by the Defense Department from the 3M company didn’t work, according to the government, who says that has led to serious issues involving hearing loss.
The earplugs in question are 3M’s combat arms earplugs. They were issued to service members from 2003 to 2015.
Retired Army soldier Kevin McAnally says he spent two decades working on the CH47 Chinook helicopter.
“With engines running on a flight line where you might have say a half a dozen to a dozen aircraft turning up and you’re out walking around either doing maintenance or checking on maintenance, so you’re exposed to a lot of noise,” he said.
Now, because of earplugs the government alleges were defective, he says he’s suffering from hearing loss.
“I can tell by the loudness of the TV now, the loudness of the radio,” he told News 5. He also said it’s not just a loss of hearing that bothers him.
“The other big thing is the constant ringing in the ears too, I hear it now. The quieter it gets, the worse it gets, especially at night,” said McAnally.
And, he’s not alone. Thousands of other service members who were issued these earplugs may also have significant hearing loss. That hearing loss can be detected using audiograms service members are required to take when they enter and exit service.
Even those who didn’t go into a combat zone are subject to high noise levels from training, like former Military Police Officer Brandon Wright.
“You had to qualify a lot…a lot of exercises, a lot of stress tests, weapons going off, sirens, concussion grenades going off.”
Now, both men are suing 3M over the hearing loss they claim was caused by these earplugs.
The Combat Arms earplugs are two-sided plugs. One side is green, designed to be used as a normal earplug. The yellow side is said to allow service members to hear a conversation, while at the same time blocking out loud noises.
But the Department of Justice, which recently reached a $9m settlement with 3M, says the company’s own testing showed they just didn’t work.
Attorney Ed Rowan of the Mobile law firm Taylor-Martino has been named to the Plaintiff Steering Committee of the Northern District of Florida Federal Court in Pensacola. The firm is representing about 200 active and former service members.
Rowan said, “When 3M tested this side (yellow side) of the earplug, and this is the side that supposedly you can hear voices but it gives you some level of protection, it actually tested at negative 2 NRR. That’s Noise Reduction Rating. What that means is their own tests showed this side amplified noise.” Rowan told News 5 that while older foam earplugs once used by the military could cut noise levels by 30 to 40 decibels, the green side of the Combat Arms earplugs only cut noise by about 11 decibels.
Even with that knowledge from their own testing, Rowan says 3M sold them to the military anyway. But for him, having served in the Marine Corps, the issue is personal.
“They took advantage of veterans, and that riles me up,” he said.
All of the lawsuits filed against 3M across the country are now being consolidated in Federal Court in Pensacola. Rowan stresses this is not a Class-Action, but rather individual lawsuits that will be heard. The consolidation is similar to how lawsuits over the BP oil spill were handled with consolidation in New Orleans. So far, it’s unclear when the first cases will be heard.
3M responded to this story with the following statement.