Hundreds of military veterans are expected to file lawsuits against the manufacturing company 3M, claiming it knowingly sold defective earplugs. These complaints come after the Justice Department settled a lawsuit with the company in July over allegations the company defrauded the government by selling earplugs with "dangerous design defects" to the military for "more than a decade."
3M agreed to pay $9.1 million to the government, but admitted no liability. CBS News' Dr. Jon LaPook spoke with servicemen who deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, where they were in close proximity to small arms, heavy artillery and rockets. Until that 3M settlement, they believed their hearing loss was par for the course.
Joseph Junk and David Hendersen served in the U.S. military for three and six years respectively. Junk said he joined the Army as part of family tradition and Hendersen felt a duty to his country after 9/11. They both relied on earplugs to protect them in training and combat.
"We were told these devices are gonna save our hearing and that's what we did. We used them," Hendersen said. So did Junk. "I mean, the basic expectation is that you can rely on your training and your equipment … Everybody was just under the impression that these particular earplugs were doing their job," he said.
"We've just been told that, 'This is the equipment you get and it's the best out there. It's gonna save your hearing,' Junk said. "Later on, we found out that it didn't really protect our hearing that much at all."
A joint lawsuit filed by the government and by a competitor of 3M, the manufacturer of the earplugs, alleged 3M was aware prior to selling the earplugs to the military that testing procedures and fitting instructions were unlawfully manipulated. It also claimed they sold the plugs from 2003 to 2015 "without disclosing the design defect."
"It wasn't an omission. It wasn't something missed. It was deliberately lying to gain money and hurting our service members," Hendersen said.
Last month, Junk and Hendersen filed civil complaints against 3M, claiming the company "did not adequately warn of the defects or adequately warn how to wear the earplugs."
"From what I remember, guys would put them in and, like, they had bigger ear canals so it would go all the way in and sort of get stuck in there or you had guys that would put them in and still be able to hear everything," Hendersen recalled. "But you have so many other things to worry about you know, particular to safety or your … physical well-being."
With so many other things to worry about in terms of their safety, hearing was close to the bottom of the list. They said they both suffer from partial hearing loss and a condition known as tinnitus, which is described as a high-pitched hissing sound. Junk said the second he stops hearing sounds, when it's quiet, is when the ringing gets loudest.
"What is quiet? What's peace? I know for me personally, I don't have it. All I hear is ringing if there's no noise around me," he said. "If I do not have noise around me, it's maddening. It is torture."
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, tinnitus is the most common disability experienced by veterans with over 2.7 million receiving benefits for it. Dr. Thomas Roland of NYU Langone Health explained that sound enters not only through the ear canal but also through something know as bone conduction.
"Our military personnel are exposed to extreme levels of noise," Roland said. "When sound strikes the bone of our skull, the bone moves with the sound … Even if you completely block the ear, sound above a certain level can still get to the inner ear through bone conduction, still be very damaging." He said that any earplug – even perfectly designed ones – cannot prevent bone conduction of loud sound through the skull to the inner ear.
Andrew Duffy represents over two dozen veterans who used these earplugs. "These earplugs have a dangerous design flaw," Duffy said. "The goal is to send a message to 3M and other companies that … you cannot defraud the United States of America and have the consequences be the health and wellbeing of our military members." But no settlement is going to help bring their hearing back or get rid of the tinnitus.
"You can't put a price on that. You can't put a price on one of your senses, on your enjoyment of life, of maybe tranquil peace and quiet, or how I used to enjoy music. I can't—I can't enjoy music like I used to," Junk said.
Hendersen is still angry. "Still wanting, you know, wanting to, raise awareness to our fellow service members to get the – to get the word out. Go get tested. Go to the doctor. But then, you know, also wanting 3M toown up to it, to explain it more. We can maybe start with an apology," he said.
Those earplugs have been discontinued and the Department of Justice declined to comment on which earplugs the military currently uses. 3M told CBS News it has "a long history of partnering with the U.S. military" and continues to make products to protect our troops. It denies the earplugs were defectively designed.