3M Deceived the U.S. Military, Knowingly Sold Faulty Earplugs, and Almost Got Away With It

3M yellow and black earplugs

In 2018, 3M Company paid the U.S. Department of Justice $9.1 Million to resolve allegations that it supplied the U.S. military with defective earplugs. The whistleblower lawsuit brought the disturbing behavior to light, but none of the money from the 3M earplug settlement was set aside for the veterans who were injured.

Nor has 3M admitted wrongdoing, though internal documents show the company was aware of serious problems with its Dual-Ended Combat Arms Earplug™ (CAEv2). Currently, there is no evidence they ever shared those problems with the military.

The $9.1 Million settlement represents a tiny portion of the profits 3M reaped from selling earplugs to the military and an even smaller fraction of the costs associated with treating the damage caused by faulty hearing protection.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), more than 2.6 million veterans are currently on disability for hearing-related injuries.

Since news of the Justice Department settlement, more than 160,000 people have filed 3M earplug lawsuits alleging that the company’s defective products left them with permanent injuries, including:

  • Hearing loss
  • Tinnitus (ringing or buzzing in the ears)

While combat veterans who served between 2003 and 2015 are likely at the highest risk, the defective earplugs were used by service members in other settings, such as:

  • Firearms training
  • Vehicle use or maintenance
  • Work areas with noise-hazardous conditions

In the age of deep fakes and hot takes, it’s understandable that people are skeptical when they hear a well-respected American manufacturer like 3M knowingly sold defective ear protection to the military.

In this case, hard evidence has come to light that shows how certain individuals signed off on fraudulent claims and perpetuated bogus claims that left soldiers exposed on the battlefield.

What Are 3M Dual-Ended Combat Arms Earplugs?

The Dual-Ended Combat Arms Earplug was originally manufactured by Aearo, which was purchased by 3M in 2007. The dual-ended design was supposed to provide soldiers with a single earplug that had two different levels of sound reduction.

When the dark end was inserted, the product functioned as a traditional earplug by generally reducing noise. When the yellow end was inserted, the earplug would block loud noises from combat while allowing quieter noises, like battlefield commands, to be heard.

The idea was simple and would have given soldiers the ability to protect their hearing without impinging on communication among fellow soldiers. The problem was that the product did not work.

Aearo Pushed Combat Earplugs Without Testing

At the end of 1999, Aearo scientist Elliott Berger reached out to his boss. The company had already sold 2,000 combat earplugs to the military, but as Berger noted, “It recently occurred to us that we have no data on the actual version of the [CAE].”

Once Aearo finally did tests, they discovered that the stem of the earplug was too short. The product barely reduced noise, let alone at the level they needed to protect combat soldiers.

When either end was inserted, the back of the non-inserted end would press against the ear of some wearers. Known as a flange, this rubbery section of the earplug would push back to its original shape, loosening the seal in the wearer's ear canal.

So far, 3M has yet to produce any documentation that they — or Aearo — ever shared this serious issue with the military.

In 2003, Aearo won a lucrative contract to supply the military with millions of the Duel-Ended Combat Earplugs. Without deceiving the government, the defective product never would have become the standard issue for men and women in uniform.

Hearing Damage to Veterans

When 3M acquired Aearo, the company had a unique opportunity to reassess the effectiveness of the combat earplugs. By this time, millions of the defective products had been put to the test in Afghanistan and Iraq. What were the results?

A 2008 report on military hearing loss published in the American Journal of Public Health said that 51% of combat soldiers have “moderately severe hearing loss or worse.”

The researchers were surprised. They expected that Army hearing conservation programs and new technology would have resulted in a decrease in such disability claims by veterans. Unfortunately, the problem looked like it was getting much worse. They reported:

“In 2006, the number of new applicants granted primary disabilities for hearing loss and tinnitus was 49,606 and 61,269, respectively.

Combined, the total disability payments for hearing loss and tinnitus were over $1 Billion, marking a 319% increase since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan in 2001. Tinnitus was responsible for the largest number of primary disabilities in 2007, followed closely by hearing loss.”

At the time, the military was still putting its trust in a defective product. By paying attention to the astronomical damage that had already occurred, 3M could have done a valuable service for its combat veterans.

Instead, they kept the Aearo scientists and engineers who made the defective product and let the destructive charade continue for another decade.

Aggressive Tactics Backfire and Expose the 3M Earplug Fraud

With a monopoly on selling earplugs to the military, 3M raised prices on a product they knew didn’t work as advertised. For a product that costs less than a dollar to make, the company charged nearly $8.

Moldex, a family-owned manufacturing company, developed a competing earplug that was a lot less expensive than 3M’s. In order to keep the competitor away from their market, 3M filed a patent infringement lawsuit, despite the fact that the products were markedly different.

After winning the lawsuit, Moldex filed an antitrust lawsuit against 3M. During the discovery phase, lawyers from Moldex uncovered the falsified testing data and internal documents that showed Aearo and 3M had known their earplug was defective.

Eventually, Moldex served as the whistleblower in the lawsuit that finally brought the scandal to public attention in 2018.

Filing a 3M Earplug Lawsuit

Supplying equipment to the military is big business, but it comes with an even bigger responsibility. In the case of 3M, profits came first, and now hundreds of thousands of veterans are paying the price.

A company that claimed to give soldiers the edge was in fact endangering their battlefield communication and long-term health.

Veterans who served between 2003 and 2015 may have been issued defective earplugs. Veterans who served during that time frame and have developed hearing loss or tinnitus may be able to take legal action against the company.

All brands are trademarks of their respective companies.

Sokolove Law Team

Contributing Authors

The Sokolove Law Content Team is made up of writers, editors, and journalists. We work with case managers and attorneys to keep site information up to date and accurate. Our site has a wealth of resources available for victims of wrongdoing and their families.

Last modified: September 13, 2023

  1. McIlwain, D. Scott et al. (2008, December) Heritage of Army Audiology and the Road Ahead: The Army Hearing Program, American Journal of Public Health. Retrieved July 23, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2636536/
  2. Tiron, Roxana and Barash, Martina (2020, April 24) 3M Officials Say Troops Didn’t Need to Know Proper Use of Plugs, Bloomberg Government. Retrieved July 23, 2020, from https://about.bgov.com/news/3m-officials-say-troops-didnt-need-to-know-proper-use-of-plugs/
  3. Thayer, Rose L. (2020, April 29) Judge Unseals Hundreds of Pages of Documents in Veterans’ Lawsuit Against 3M Over Earplugs, Stars and Stripes. Retrieved July 23, 2020, from https://www.stripes.com/news/veterans/judge-unseals-hundreds-of-pages-of-documents-in-veterans-lawsuit-against-3m-over-earplugs-1.627827
  4. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Public Affairs (2019, July 26) 3M Company Agrees to Pay $9.1 Million to Resolve Allegations That it Supplied the United States With Defective Dual-Ended Combat Arms Earplugs. Retrieved July 23, 2020, from https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/3m-company-agrees-pay-91-million-resolve-allegations-it-supplied-united-states-defective-dual
  5. Webb, Olivia (2020, July 9) 3M: Monopoly, Misrepresentation, and Malpractice, The American Prospect. Retrieved July 23, 2020, from https://prospect.org/power/monopoly-misrepresentation-and-malpractice-3m-earplugs/