Hearing loss remains a significant threat to Marines, both during and after their military careers.

In January, leaders in hearing conservation from across the Defense Department met for a focus group aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, to attack the issue. They reviewed technologies, policies and how to get the word out to Marines.

"Noise-induced hearing loss is completely preventable, and we can do better at every level to reduce it," said hearing conservation program manager Dr. Jolene Mancini, an audiologist at Naval Health Clinic Quantico. "Improvements can be made in all areas, but probably the most effective is also the simplest and lowest-tech solution — education."

Here's what you need to know:

1. Damage to your healthWhaaat?

Permanent hearing loss can result not just from one-time exposure to a loud noise, but from prolonged exposure to lower noises.

Continuous exposure to impulse noise 95 decibels or below — a lawn mower, for example — can lead to permanent side effects.

"Hearing loss is the obvious one, but many other aspects of your health can be affected," Mancini said. "Noise exposure has been associated with high blood pressure, sleep disturbance, increased stress and many other non-auditory effects."

2. Who's affected

Every Marine has been exposed to hazardous noise at some point in his or her career, according to Mancini.

Exact statistics are not available, she said, but the results of not having or using the right hearing protection are significant.

"Hearing loss and tinnitus are the most commonly reported service-connected disabilities to the VA, and over $1 billion is paid annually to veterans for compensation," she said.

3. The main causes

Hearing damage isn't limited to being around firing weapons or things that go boom, sounds which can exceed 170 decibels.

Continuous exposure to loud equipment, vehicles or aircraft are major contributors, and the effects add up, Mancini said.

"Any exposure to hazardous noise where a person isn't properly protected is going to damage their hearing," she said. "It doesn't hurt to lose your hearing but the damage occurs with every exposure, and it is cumulative."

4. Protect yourself

The focus group is working to bring new technologies and policies to the force, but Marines need to take the lead in protecting themselves and their troops.

There are hundreds of hearing protection devices available with different styles, noise reduction and materials, and Marines should educate themselves on the right one to use for their environment. Start at the Department of Defense Hearing Center of Excellence www.hearing.health.mil.

"Noise exposure cannot be completely avoided, but each Marine needs to understand the type of noise they are exposed to, and how to protect him/herself," Mancini said. "Familiarization with the types of [hearing protection devices] available to them and their appropriate wear is the first step."

5. What's next

The focus group is investigating ways to bring Marines better hearing protection devices specific to lower impulse noises. They're also looking at different ways to cap noises at the source, such as noise controls for heavy machinery or rifle suppressors.

Over the next month, they will collaborate with researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to study various weapons systems at Quantico, and will present their findings at a symposium to share with other occupational health professionals.

"When it comes to hearing conservation in the Marine Corps, there is room for improvement," Mancini said. "We are working hard on our end to improve our measurements and recommendations; with specific outreach, education and collaboration, we hope to have a more informed, and more protected Marine population."

Matthew L. Schehl covers training and education, recruiting, West Coast Marines, MARSOC, and operations in Europe, Africa and the Middle East for Marine Corps Times. He can be reached at mschehl@marinecorpstimes.com.