From 2003 to 2015, 3M was the exclusive provider of earplugs for every branch of the U.S. military. 3M promised that its Combat Arms Earplugs, Version 2 (“CAEv2”) would protect American military personnel from noise exposure to vehicles, jet engines, gunfire, and explosions. However, 3M misrepresented an inflated Noise Reduction Rating (or “NRR”) to the American government to secure a lucrative government contract to sell these earplugs. Additionally, flaws in the CAEv2’s design led to imperceptible loosening of the earplugs which exposed service members to needless endangerment of their hearing.  As a result, 3M risked the hearing of an entire generation of American service members, leaving may with severe tinnitus (buzzing or ringing in the ears), hearing loss, or both.

3M’s Broken Promises

In the summer of 2018, 3M settled a lawsuit brought by another government contractor under the False Claims Act. This lawsuit alleged that 3M and its predecessors, Aearo Technologies and its affiliates, knowingly and intentionally sold faulty, defective earplugs to the U.S. government. The lawsuit also alleged that 3M knew about the CAEv2’s deficiencies since 2000 but withheld the information from the government – even after 3M became the sole provider of earplugs to thousands of service men and women.

Facts uncovered during the lawsuit revealed that 3M overstated its earplugs’ capabilities. The U.S. government required 3M to provide earplugs with an NRR of 22 decibels, which would make sounds roughly 100 times quieter. 3M promised its CAEv2 earplugs met that requirement – but testing has shown that the CAEv2 earplug only actually reduced sounds by 10.9 decibels, just under half what was promised to the government. As a result, thousands of military service members may have suffered hearing loss or impairment that could have been avoided had 3M provided adequate warnings about the earplugs’ potential design defects.

Experts have determined that the CAEv2 earplug itself was too short to be maintain a proper fit in the user’s ear canal. CAEv2 earplugs have two ends connected by a flexible stem – one green and one yellow and meant for different purposes. This was meant to allow servicemembers to use one end for total noise cancellation and the other for selective noise cancellation to allow for greater situational awareness. Even when properly inserted, the opposite side of the earplugs can push against the ear and imperceptibly loosen the fit of the device. Because 3M failed to warn servicemembers of fitting issues due to this length problem, soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines were vulnerable to noises bypassing the earplug and attacking the eardrum directly.