American Prospect: 3M: Monopoly, Misrepresentation, and Malpractice

July 9, 2020 Op-ed


3M: Monopoly, Misrepresentation, and Malpractice

It was 2013, and Gabriel found himself alongside dozens of other newly enlisted Marines, watching artillery rounds go off as part of a training exercise. Following standard operating procedure, Gabriel, who asked that his last name be withheld, wore earplugs. For some reason, they didn’t seem to work. He brushed off the pain; in the Marines, he explained, “God forbid you come off as weak.” He wasn’t about to complain about an earache so early in his military career.

After training, Gabriel became an aircraft mechanic. Before turning 23, he rose to the rank of corporal and did a six-month tour in Bahrain. When he left the Marines, four years after his ears started ringing, an audiogram revealed that his military service had resulted in deep damage, leaving his hearing markedly worse than when he enlisted. These days, his ears constantly ring. His inability to discern the direction of noise leaves him paranoid, “especially at night, when I’m at home,” he told me. “You’re always focused on what’s going on, is there anything in the house … [and] if you can’t hear, you’re kind of at a loss.”

Meanwhile, Elliott Berger, a division scientist at 3M, was passionate about sound. His greatest joy, he told a corporate interviewer on the occasion of his 2018 retirement, was hearing the world’s diverse noises, “from the sounds of rain on a pane of glass to a zephyr from the west passing thru [sic] a grove of saguaros.”

Berger would probably lament Gabriel’s inability to hear a gentle breeze. But Gabriel’s hearing loss is one of the casualties of Berger’s successful career. While working at Aearo, a large, private equity–owned company eventually acquired by 3M, Berger falsified crucial test data.

By the time Berger and his bosses’ obfuscation was discovered in 2015, Aearo and its parent company 3M had supplied millions of earplugs to nearly all troops who served between 2006 and 2015. Each pair of earplugs was faulty, due to a mechanical flaw discovered in 2000 by Berger and another lab scientist, Ronald Kieper, and subsequently hidden. Now, more than 160,000 veterans, current service members, and civilians are suing 3M for hearing loss, in one of the largest litigations of its kind in U.S. history.