Cinema History from the Cold War!

Radioactive Fallout and Shelter

Department of Health, Education and Welfare
Office of Civil Defense

To say an enemy nuclear attack would have strained the medical infrastructure of Cold War America would be a terrific understatement.  Areas receiving a direct hit from an enemy missile would have seen severe casualties far outnumbering available hospitals and staff.  In the vast expanses spared damage by blast and fire, the need to seek shelter from fallout radiation would have isolated doctors from patients, leaving many ailments to go untreated.  Anticipating this problem, The Department of Health, Education and Welfare worked with the Office of Civil Defense to develop the concept of Medical Self-Help to train Americans how to handle basic emergencies without the help of physicians or nurses.(1)  In 1963, the two agencies published an extensive booklet, with each chapter addressing a different medical scenario likely to occur in the wake of a nuclear attack or other peacetime disaster.(2)  Two years later, a program of eleven films was released, with each installment in the series corresponding to a chapter in the booklet.  As the introductory film in this series, Radioactive Fallout and Shelter provides a thorough explanation of what fallout is, how it's created, how it harms the human body and, briefly, how to treat those suffering from radiation sickness.

Opening in the office of an anonymous civil defense official, who also provides narration, the film begins with an explanation of radiation and how it harms the human body.  Fallout, created when the radioactive elements released in a nuclear explosion fuse with pulverized materials, emits penetrating rays which destroy the cells and tissue of anyone in a close enough proximity.  Can these deadly particles be tracked and measured?  In two ways, explains the narrator.  Meteorologists will first chart wind directions and weather patterns to determine where fallout dust will descend.  Once it lands, trained radiological monitors with specialized  instruments will measure its intensity in Roentgens (units measuring exposure to radiation) and issue instructions accordingly.  Because fallout weakens over time and distances and cannot penetrate many readily available building materials like concrete and masonry, viewers are encouraged to plan for a period in a protective shelter.  This shelter is being provided by the Office of Civil Defense, which is finding buildings with suitable shielding qualities to serve as public fallout shelters.  Such buildings will be marked with conspicuous signs and stocked with food, water, medical and sanitation supplies and radiological equipment.  The basement of a large industrial plant, which also serves as a public shelter, is shown full of people in the wake of an unspecified emergency.  For those who prefer to remain in their homes, private shelters are also an option and a well constructed and fully-stocked shelter in the basement of a home is shown.  These two shelters, the industrial building and the suburban home shelter, serve as the setting for all films in the series. 

Because the purpose of the film is to offer medical advice, the last half is devoted to identifying and treating symptoms of radiation sickness.  According to the narrator, the main problem shelter staff will have to face is differentiating between cases of panic and cases of mild radiation sickness.  Slight nausea, loss of appetite, prostration and fatigue are symptoms of each.  For this reason, it is necessary to determine how many Roentgens per hour a patient has been subject to.  Persons exposed to 100 Roentgens or less in a short amount of time will likely suffer no ill effects.  If that number is raised to 300 Roentgens in a short amount of time, which is a possibility in the period immediately following a nuclear attack, sickness could certainly occur.  When the number is raised to 600 or more Roentgens, death is likely.  Anyone entering a public shelter after the arrival of fallout should be examined with survey meters.  Civil defense volunteers needing to conduct vital tasks out of doors should always carry a dosimeter (pen-sized device to measure fallout particles on an individual) and thoroughly brush themselves off before re-entering the shelter area.  Regardless of the level a person's exposure, the treatments remain the same.  Baking soda for nausea and stomach pains, warm water gargles for inflamed throats, aspirin for headaches and, above all, rest.  Diarrhea, which occurs with more severe exposure, should be treated similarly.  In closing, the narrator takes time to emphasize the long term effects of radiation exposure, hair loss and sterility, would only be temporary.  Radioactive Fallout and Shelter appears to have been taken out of circulation in the years following its release.  The other ten installments in this series were offered for rent or purchase from government film catalogs well into the 1980's, though this title does not appear along side them.(3)  The Medical Self-Help program which the film was designed to supplement would be diminished due to budget cuts in the late 1960's though it would continue well into the 1970's.(4)

Radioactive Fallout and Shelter may be viewed, in its entirety, HERE.

1. Office of Civil Defense.  1962 Annual Report.  United States Government Printing Office, 1963.  62.
2. Office of Civil Defense, U.S. Department of Health Education and Welfare.  Family Guide Emergency Health Care.  U.S. Government Printing Office, 1963.

3. General Services Administration.  A List of Audiovisual Materials Produced by the U.S. Government for Emergency Medical Services.  national Archives and Record Service. 1982.
4. Office of Civil Defense.  1965 Annual Report.  United States Government Printing Office, 1968.  113.