Gray (unit)

Last updated
Unit system SI
Unit of absorbed dose of ionizing radiation
Named after Louis Harold Gray
1 Gy in ...... is equal to ...
    SI base units     m 2 s −2
    CGS units (non-SI)   100 rad

The gray (symbol: Gy) is the unit of ionizing radiation dose in the International System of Units (SI), defined as the absorption of one joule of radiation energy per kilogram of matter. [1]


It is used as a unit of the radiation quantity absorbed dose that measures the energy deposited by ionizing radiation in a unit mass of matter being irradiated, and is used for measuring the delivered dose in radiotherapy, food irradiation and radiation sterilization. It is important in predicting likely acute health effects, such as acute radiation syndrome and is used to calculate equivalent dose using the sievert, which is a measure of the stochastic health effect on the human body.

The gray is also used in radiation metrology as a unit of the radiation quantity kerma; defined as the sum of the initial kinetic energies of all the charged particles liberated by uncharged ionizing radiation [lower-alpha 1] in a sample of matter per unit mass. The gray is an important unit in ionising radiation measurement and was named after British physicist Louis Harold Gray, a pioneer in the measurement of X-ray and radium radiation and their effects on living tissue. [2]

The gray was adopted as part of the International System of Units in 1975. The corresponding cgs unit to the gray is the rad (equivalent to 0.01 Gy), which remains common largely in the United States, though "strongly discouraged" in the style guide for U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology. [3]


External dose quantities used in radiation protection and dosimetry Dose quantities and units.png
External dose quantities used in radiation protection and dosimetry

The gray has a number of fields of application in measuring dose:


The measurement of absorbed dose in tissue is of fundamental importance in radiobiology and radiation therapy as it is the measure of the amount of energy the incident radiation deposits in the target tissue. The measurement of absorbed dose is a complex problem due to scattering and absorption, and many specialist dosimeters are available for these measurements, and can cover applications in 1-D, 2-D and 3-D. [4] [5] [6]

In radiation therapy, the amount of radiation applied varies depending on the type and stage of cancer being treated. For curative cases, the typical dose for a solid epithelial tumor ranges from 60 to 80 Gy, while lymphomas are treated with 20 to 40 Gy. Preventive (adjuvant) doses are typically around 45–60 Gy in 1.8–2 Gy fractions (for breast, head, and neck cancers).

The average radiation dose from an abdominal X-ray is 0.7 millisieverts (0.0007 Sv), that from an abdominal CT scan is 8 mSv, that from a pelvic CT scan is 6 mGy, and that from a selective CT scan of the abdomen and the pelvis is 14 mGy. [7]

Radiation protection

Relationship of ICRU/ICRP computed Protection dose quantities and units SI Radiation dose units.png
Relationship of ICRU/ICRP computed Protection dose quantities and units

The absorbed dose also plays an important role in radiation protection, as it is the starting point for calculating the stochastic health risk of low levels of radiation, which is defined as the probability of cancer induction and genetic damage. [8] The gray measures the total absorbed energy of radiation, but the probability of stochastic damage also depends on the type and energy of the radiation and the types of tissues involved. This probability is related to the equivalent dose in sieverts (Sv), which has the same dimensions as the gray. It is related to the gray by weighting factors described in the articles on equivalent dose and effective dose.

The International Committee for Weights and Measures states: "In order to avoid any risk of confusion between the absorbed dose D and the dose equivalent H, the special names for the respective units should be used, that is, the name gray should be used instead of joules per kilogram for the unit of absorbed dose D and the name sievert instead of joules per kilogram for the unit of dose equivalent H." [9]

The accompanying diagrams show how absorbed dose (in grays) is first obtained by computational techniques, and from this value the equivalent doses are derived. For X-rays and gamma rays the gray is numerically the same value when expressed in sieverts, but for alpha particles one gray is equivalent to 20 sieverts, and a radiation weighting factor is applied accordingly.

Radiation poisoning

Radiation poisoning: The gray is conventionally used to express the severity of what are known as "tissue effects" from doses received in acute exposure to high levels of ionizing radiation. These are effects that are certain to happen, as opposed to the uncertain effects of low levels of radiation that have a probability of causing damage. A whole-body acute exposure to 5 grays or more of high-energy radiation usually leads to death within 14 days. LD 1 is 2.5 Gy, LD50 is 5 Gy and LD99 is 8 Gy. [10] The LD50 dose represents 375 joules for a 75 kg adult.

Absorbed dose in matter

The gray is used to measure absorbed dose rates in non-tissue materials for processes such as radiation hardening, food irradiation and electron irradiation. Measuring and controlling the value of absorbed dose is vital to ensuring correct operation of these processes.


Kerma ("kinetic energy released per unit mass") is used in radiation metrology as a measure of the liberated energy of ionisation due to irradiation, and is expressed in grays. Importantly, kerma dose is different from absorbed dose, depending on the radiation energies involved, partially because ionization energy is not accounted for. Whilst roughly equal at low energies, kerma is much higher than absorbed dose at higher energies, because some energy escapes from the absorbing volume in the form of bremsstrahlung (X-rays) or fast-moving electrons.

Kerma, when applied to air, is equivalent to the legacy roentgen unit of radiation exposure, but there is a difference in the definition of these two units. The gray is defined independently of any target material, however, the roentgen was defined specifically by the ionisation effect in dry air, which did not necessarily represent the effect on other media.

Development of the absorbed dose concept and the gray

Using early Crookes tube X-Ray apparatus in 1896. One man is viewing his hand with a fluoroscope to optimise tube emissions, the other has his head close to the tube. No precautions are being taken. Crookes tube xray experiment.jpg
Using early Crookes tube X-Ray apparatus in 1896. One man is viewing his hand with a fluoroscope to optimise tube emissions, the other has his head close to the tube. No precautions are being taken.
Monument to the X-ray and Radium Martyrs of All Nations erected 1936 at St. Georg hospital in Hamburg, commemorating 359 early radiology workers. Ehrenmal der Radiologie (Hamburg-St. Georg).1.ajb.jpg
Monument to the X-ray and Radium Martyrs of All Nations erected 1936 at St. Georg hospital in Hamburg, commemorating 359 early radiology workers.

Wilhelm Röntgen first discovered X-rays on November 8, 1895, and their use spread very quickly for medical diagnostics, particularly broken bones and embedded foreign objects where they were a revolutionary improvement over previous techniques.

Due to the wide use of X-rays and the growing realisation of the dangers of ionizing radiation, measurement standards became necessary for radiation intensity and various countries developed their own, but using differing definitions and methods. Eventually, in order to promote international standardisation, the first International Congress of Radiology (ICR) meeting in London in 1925, proposed a separate body to consider units of measure. This was called the International Commission on Radiation Units and Measurements, or ICRU, [lower-alpha 2] and came into being at the Second ICR in Stockholm in 1928, under the chairmanship of Manne Siegbahn. [11] [12] [lower-alpha 3]

One of the earliest techniques of measuring the intensity of X-rays was to measure their ionising effect in air by means of an air-filled ion chamber. At the first ICRU meeting it was proposed that one unit of X-ray dose should be defined as the quantity of X-rays that would produce one esu of charge in one cubic centimetre of dry air at 0  °C and 1 standard atmosphere of pressure. This unit of radiation exposure was named the roentgen in honour of Wilhelm Röntgen, who had died five years previously. At the 1937 meeting of the ICRU, this definition was extended to apply to gamma radiation. [13] This approach, although a great step forward in standardisation, had the disadvantage of not being a direct measure of the absorption of radiation, and thereby the ionisation effect, in various types of matter including human tissue, and was a measurement only of the effect of the X-rays in a specific circumstance; the ionisation effect in dry air. [14]

In 1940, Louis Harold Gray, who had been studying the effect of neutron damage on human tissue, together with William Valentine Mayneord and the radiobiologist John Read, published a paper in which a new unit of measure, dubbed the "gram roentgen" (symbol: gr) was proposed, and defined as "that amount of neutron radiation which produces an increment in energy in unit volume of tissue equal to the increment of energy produced in unit volume of water by one roentgen of radiation". [15] This unit was found to be equivalent to 88 ergs in air, and made the absorbed dose, as it subsequently became known, dependent on the interaction of the radiation with the irradiated material, not just an expression of radiation exposure or intensity, which the roentgen represented. In 1953 the ICRU recommended the rad, equal to 100 erg/g, as the new unit of measure of absorbed radiation. The rad was expressed in coherent cgs units. [13]

In the late 1950s, the CGPM invited the ICRU to join other scientific bodies to work on the development of the International System of Units, or SI. [16] The CCU decided to define the SI unit of absorbed radiation as energy deposited by reabsorbed charged particles per unit mass of absorbent material, which is how the rad had been defined, but in MKS units it would be equivalent to the joule per kilogram. This was confirmed in 1975 by the 15th CGPM, and the unit was named the "gray" in honour of Louis Harold Gray, who had died in 1965. The gray was thus equal to 100 rad. Notably, the centigray (numerically equivalent to the rad) is still widely used to describe absolute absorbed doses in radiotherapy.

The adoption of the gray by the 15th General Conference on Weights and Measures as the unit of measure of the absorption of ionizing radiation, specific energy absorption, and of kerma in 1975 [17] was the culmination of over half a century of work, both in the understanding of the nature of ionizing radiation and in the creation of coherent radiation quantities and units.

Graphic showing relationships between radioactivity and detected ionizing radiation at a point. Radioactivity and radiation.png
Graphic showing relationships between radioactivity and detected ionizing radiation at a point.

The following table shows radiation quantities in SI and non-SI units.

Ionizing radiation related quantities view    talk    edit
QuantityUnitSymbolDerivationYear SI equivalence
Activity (A) becquerel Bqs−11974SI unit
curie Ci3.7 × 1010 s−119533.7×1010 Bq
rutherford Rd106 s−119461,000,000 Bq
Exposure (X) coulomb per kilogram C/kgC⋅kg−1 of air1974SI unit
röntgen R esu / 0.001293 g of air19282.58 × 10−4 C/kg
Absorbed dose (D) gray Gy J⋅kg−11974SI unit
erg per gramerg/gerg⋅g−119501.0 × 10−4 Gy
rad rad100 erg⋅g−119530.010 Gy
Equivalent dose (H) sievert SvJ⋅kg−1 × WR 1977SI unit
röntgen equivalent man rem100 erg⋅g−1 x WR 19710.010 Sv
Effective dose (E) sievert SvJ⋅kg−1 × WR × WT 1977SI unit
röntgen equivalent man rem100 erg⋅g−1 × WR × WT 19710.010 Sv

See also


  1. I.e., indirectly ionizing radiation such as photons and neutrons
  2. Originally known as the International X-ray Unit Committee
  3. The host country nominated the chairman of the early ICRU meetings.

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Beta particle</span> Ionizing radiation

A beta particle, also called beta ray or beta radiation, is a high-energy, high-speed electron or positron emitted by the radioactive decay of an atomic nucleus during the process of beta decay. There are two forms of beta decay, β decay and β+ decay, which produce electrons and positrons respectively.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sievert</span> SI unit of equivalent dose of ionizing radiation

The sievert is a unit in the International System of Units (SI) intended to represent the stochastic health risk of ionizing radiation, which is defined as the probability of causing radiation-induced cancer and genetic damage. The sievert is important in dosimetry and radiation protection. It is named after Rolf Maximilian Sievert, a Swedish medical physicist renowned for work on radiation dose measurement and research into the biological effects of radiation.

Ionizing radiation, including nuclear radiation, consists of subatomic particles or electromagnetic waves that have sufficient energy to ionize atoms or molecules by detaching electrons from them. The particles generally travel at a speed that is 99% of the speed of light, and the electromagnetic waves are on the high-energy portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Radiation dosimetry in the fields of health physics and radiation protection is the measurement, calculation and assessment of the ionizing radiation dose absorbed by an object, usually the human body. This applies both internally, due to ingested or inhaled radioactive substances, or externally due to irradiation by sources of radiation.

Equivalent dose is a dose quantity H representing the stochastic health effects of low levels of ionizing radiation on the human body which represents the probability of radiation-induced cancer and genetic damage. It is derived from the physical quantity absorbed dose, but also takes into account the biological effectiveness of the radiation, which is dependent on the radiation type and energy. In the SI system of units, the unit of measure is the sievert (Sv).

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Health physics</span>

Health physics, also referred to as the science of radiation protection, is the profession devoted to protecting people and their environment from potential radiation hazards, while making it possible to enjoy the beneficial uses of radiation. Health physicists normally require a four-year bachelor’s degree and qualifying experience that demonstrates a professional knowledge of the theory and application of radiation protection principles and closely related sciences. Health physicists principally work at facilities where radionuclides or other sources of ionizing radiation are used or produced; these include research, industry, education, medical facilities, nuclear power, military, environmental protection, enforcement of government regulations, and decontamination and decommissioning—the combination of education and experience for health physicists depends on the specific field in which the health physicist is engaged.

The roentgen equivalent man (rem) is a CGS unit of equivalent dose, effective dose, and committed dose, which are dose measures used to estimate potential health effects of low levels of ionizing radiation on the human body.

Absorbed dose is a dose quantity which is the measure of the energy deposited in matter by ionizing radiation per unit mass. Absorbed dose is used in the calculation of dose uptake in living tissue in both radiation protection, and radiology. It is also used to directly compare the effect of radiation on inanimate matter such as in radiation hardening.

In radiation physics, Kerma is an acronym for "kinetic energy released per unit mass", defined as the sum of the initial kinetic energies of all the charged particles liberated by uncharged ionizing radiation in a sample of matter, divided by the mass of the sample. It is defined by the quotient .

The rad is a unit of absorbed radiation dose, defined as 1 rad = 0.01 Gy = 0.01 J/kg. It was originally defined in CGS units in 1953 as the dose causing 100 ergs of energy to be absorbed by one gram of matter. The material absorbing the radiation can be human tissue or silicon microchips or any other medium.

The Röntgen equivalent physical or rep is a legacy unit of absorbed dose first introduced by Herbert Parker in 1945 to replace an improper application of the roentgen unit to biological tissue. It is the absorbed energetic dose before the biological efficiency of the radiation is factored in. The rep has variously been defined as 83 or 93 ergs per gram of tissue (8.3/9.3 mGy) or per cm3 of tissue.

The International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) is an independent, international, non-governmental organization, with the mission to protect people, animals, and the environment from the harmful effects of ionising radiation. Its recommendations form the basis of radiological protection policy, regulations, guidelines and practice worldwide.

The International Commission on Radiation Units and Measurements (ICRU) is a standardization body set up in 1925 by the International Congress of Radiology, originally as the X-Ray Unit Committee until 1950. Its objective "is to develop concepts, definitions and recommendations for the use of quantities and their units for ionizing radiation and its interaction with matter, in particular with respect to the biological effects induced by radiation".

Radiobiology is a field of clinical and basic medical sciences that involves the study of the action of ionizing radiation on living things, especially health effects of radiation. Ionizing radiation is generally harmful and potentially lethal to living things but can have health benefits in radiation therapy for the treatment of cancer and thyrotoxicosis. Its most common impact is the induction of cancer with a latent period of years or decades after exposure. High doses can cause visually dramatic radiation burns, and/or rapid fatality through acute radiation syndrome. Controlled doses are used for medical imaging and radiotherapy.

In radiobiology, the relative biological effectiveness is the ratio of biological effectiveness of one type of ionizing radiation relative to another, given the same amount of absorbed energy. The RBE is an empirical value that varies depending on the type of ionizing radiation, the energies involved, the biological effects being considered such as cell death, and the oxygen tension of the tissues or so-called oxygen effect.

Internal dosimetry is the science and art of internal ionising radiation dose assessment due to radionuclides incorporated inside the human body.

Dose area product (DAP) is a quantity used in assessing the radiation risk from diagnostic X-ray examinations and interventional procedures. It is defined as the absorbed dose multiplied by the area irradiated, expressed in gray-centimetres squared. Manufacturers of DAP meters usually calibrate them in terms of absorbed dose to air. DAP reflects not only the dose within the radiation field but also the area of tissue irradiated. Therefore, it may be a better indicator of the overall risk of inducing cancer than the dose within the field. It also has the advantages of being easily measured, with the permanent installation of a DAP meter on the X-ray set. Due to the divergence of a beam emitted from a "point source", the area irradiated (A) increases with the square of distance from the source, while radiation intensity (I) decreases according to the inverse square of distance. Consequently, the product of intensity and area, and therefore DAP, is independent of distance from the source.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Roentgen (unit)</span>

The roentgen or röntgen is a legacy unit of measurement for the exposure of X-rays and gamma rays, and is defined as the electric charge freed by such radiation in a specified volume of air divided by the mass of that air . In 1928, it was adopted as the first international measurement quantity for ionising radiation to be defined for radiation protection, as it was then the most easily replicated method of measuring air ionization by using ion chambers. It is named after the German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen, who discovered X-rays.

Effective dose is a dose quantity in the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) system of radiological protection.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Radiation exposure</span> Measure of ionization of air by ionizing radiation

Radiation is a moving form of energy, classified into ionizing and non-ionizing type. Ionizing radiation is further categorized into electromagnetic radiation and particulate radiation. Electromagnetic radiation consists of photons, which can be thought of as energy packets, traveling in the form of a wave. Examples of electromagnetic radiation includes X-rays and gamma rays. These types of radiation can easily penetrate the human body because of high energy. Radiation exposure is a measure of the ionization of air due to ionizing radiation from photons. It is defined as the electric charge freed by such radiation in a specified volume of air divided by the mass of that air. Medical exposure is defined by the International Commission on Radiological Protection as exposure incurred by patients as part of their own medical or dental diagnosis or treatment; by persons, other than those occupationally exposed, knowingly, while voluntarily helping in the support and comfort of patients; and by volunteers in a programme of biomedical research involving their exposure. Common medical tests and treatments involving radiation include X-rays, CT scans, mammography, lung ventilation and perfusion scans, bone scans, cardiac perfusion scan, angiography, radiation therapy, and more. Each type of test carries its own amount of radiation exposure. There are two general categories of adverse health effects caused by radiation exposure: deterministic effects and stochastic effects. Deterministic effects are due to the killing/malfunction of cells following high doses; and stochastic effects involve either cancer development in exposed individuals caused by mutation of somatic cells, or heritable disease in their offspring from mutation of reproductive (germ) cells.


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