Issues regarding noise and noise-related health impairment are a major military concern. So much so that Congress directed the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in the early 2000s to sanction agencies to conduct a review of noise exposure from World War II until now. The report exposed the extent of expected hearing loss among all branches of the military. It also reported on the sources of damaging noises during active duty.
Unfortunately, the report found that our veterans are at disproportionate risk of sustaining ear or hearing damage and hearing loss. While we thank our active military and veterans for making their sacrifices to help us maintain a safe country, more must be done to protect them from noise-related health issues and make them aware of their options.
Hearing Loss Causes
As a military member, you can be exposed to damaging noise during active service during:
- General job duties
The noise can come from:
- Heavy weapons
In humans, the hearing or auditory system consists of the inner, middle, and inner ear and the pathways to the brain. Sound enters the external ear and travels to the eardrum. The eardrum then vibrates to stimulate the middle ear. Movement from here continues to the sensory organs of the inner ear. Specific sound frequencies vibrate at different locations along this sensitive pathway. Any extreme sounds can affect the function at any point of this pathway and cause damage.
What Are the Stats of Veterans and Hearing Issues?
The VA reports the following statistics regarding noise-related health issues:
- The No. 1 and 2 health conditions in VA medical centers are tinnitus and hearing loss.
- Many veterans who usually score normally on hearing tests have issues with understanding speech. This is called auditory processing disorder and is often associated with blast exposure.
- A study found that in 2015, 72% of veterans with tinnitus were also diagnosed with anxiety and 60% with depression, while 58% had both.
- In 2017, 1.79 million people received disability compensation for tinnitus, and 1.16 million people received compensation for hearing loss.
- The VA buys 1 in 5 hearing aids sold annually in the U.S., spending an average of $350 on each.
Effects of Noise Pollution
As a military member, you could develop a noise pollution disorder after experiencing a loud noise. Noise pollution can come from working in an airplane hanger or being exposed to high-intensity noise like an explosion.
High-intensity vibration contributes to tinnitus and hearing loss. Some may think that wearing protection will interfere with communications for a military mission. But thanks to sophisticated new technology, you don't have to choose between your ears and your life.
The ultimate result of noise pollution is cochlear damage. Though when discharged from the military, this damage may not immediately present as permanent damage, evidence suggests that past noise exposure with cochlear damage shows greater effects after auditory aging.
The theoretical health belief model has been used to explain the overall effects of exposure to damage like noise pollution to the ears:
- Perceived susceptibility. You may feel vulnerable to your condition and believe you're at risk for the effects of the condition.
- Perceived severity. You gauge the seriousness and consequences of how the hearing loss will affect you medically and socially.
- Perceived barriers. You may feel you need to overcome certain obstacles to receive intervention, which could include costs, social stigmas, and negative effects.
Hearing Loss in Veterans
Hearing loss disrupts communication. It can lead to functional disability, further causing mental problems like:
- Social isolation
- Poor self-esteem
Even minimal hearing loss can affect your sense of well-being and independence. It can also affect intimacy with partners, especially those who are not service-related. Poor social and psychological outcomes are associated with hearing loss. Veterans who continue to work after hearing disruption often report feelings of embarrassment, panic, and incompetence. They fear for their future employability. Untreated hearing impairment is associated with:
- Decrease in cognitive function
- Decline in functional daily living and tasks
- Decrease in healthy quality of life
There is a true need to let the public know about hearing disabilities in veterans and the overall implications.
Protecting Our Military From Noise Pollution
Earmuffs: Earmuffs are able to block sound by the creation of an air-sealed barrier over the whole ear. They're best for intermittent noise exposure. They provide comfort, protection, and warmth and are more durable than earplugs. Earmuffs block some useful sounds like speech, but some military-enhanced earmuffs have electronic communication systems to relay information.
Earplugs: Custom earplugs can prevent dangerous levels of noise from entering the ear, but they too can get in the way of mission communications like speech or some combat sounds. But level-dependent earplugs use a filter that allows you to hear soft noises at full strength while eliminating high-frequency noises. Level-dependent earplugs are easy to carry around, but they should not be used with other devices while using combat vehicles or aircraft.
Suppressors: The U.S. Marines started to use suppressors on service weapons in 2017. They don't 100% drown out the sound of gunfire, but they reduce noise by over 30 decibels. There are medical and tactical advantages to their use.
Noise-attenuating helmets: Noise-attenuating helmets help with protection from hearing loss, eye injury, and the impact of a crash while keeping lines of communication open through advancement. These helmets use active noise-reducing technology to monitor the sound around the ear and get rid of unwanted noises. They also preserve verbal transmission. An attached microphone can also be used to increase verbal clarity.
What Can Veterans Do?
If you or your loved one are concerned about noise exposure during military service, you can talk to your doctor or contact the VA Environment Health Coordinator for help. You may file a disability claim for compensation related to noise exposure during your service. The claims are decided by the VA on a case-by-case basis.