3M recently settled a Whistleblower suit with the Department of Justice over fraudulent sales of their dual-ended Version 2 Combat Arms “selective attenuation” Earplugs for $9.1 million. But this is a story that goes much further than the battlefield.
The earplugs in question are designed to provide normal hearing while protecting eardrums from gunfire and explosions that create a concussive sound. Over time, these are the damage-producing noises that lead to hearing loss and other health concerns.
The earplugs were designed to be worn with either end placed inside the ear. One end allows for hearing speech and communicating, while the other end blocked all noise more completely.
The problem is that these earplugs, which were issued to thousands of military servicemen and woman deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq between 2003 and 2015, is that they can loosen while in the ear. The soldier wouldn’t notice, but this looser fit means potentially damaging sounds make their way into the ear.
In the settlement, the U.S. government alleged that 3M and its predecessor, Aearo Technologies, were aware that the earplugs were too short and would not perform as specified, but failed to disclose this defect while finalizing the contract. In addition to potentially lying to Uncle Sam, 3M’s competitor Moldex-Metric also knew about the defect and promptly initiated a lawsuit under the False Claims Act.
"Settling the investigation into this discontinued product allows the matter to no longer be a distraction to the business," 3M said in a statement to the Twin Cities Pioneer Press. There have been no determinations of liability. In addition to delivering a significant black eye to a competitor, Moldex-Metric will receive nearly $2 million for their part in settlement.
Before brushing ear plugs off as a minor consideration for soldiers, it’s worth noting that tinnitus, or a ringing and buzzing in the ears, is one of the most common issues for veterans. According to James Henry, a research scientist with the VA Portland Healthcare System, last year there were over 1.6 million veterans seeking medical care for chronic tinnitus.