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Units for quantities that describe biological effects
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Quantities and units
The International System of Units (SI) and the corresponding system of quantities
Dimensions of quantities
Coherent units, derived units with special names, and the SI prefixes
SI units in the framework of general relativity
Units for quantities that describe biological effects
Legislation on units
Historical note

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Related articles
Appendix 3: Units for photochemical and photobiological quantities
World Health Organization (WHO)
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SI brochure, Section 1.6

Units for quantities that describe biological effects are often difficult to relate to units of the SI because they typically involve weighting factors that may not be precisely known or defined, and which may be both energy and frequency dependent. These units, which are not SI units, are described briefly in this section.

Optical radiation may cause chemical changes in living or non-living materials: this property is called actinism and radiation capable of causing such changes is referred to as actinic radiation. In some cases, the results of measurements of photochemical and photobiological quantities of this kind can be expressed in terms of SI units. This is discussed briefly in Appendix 3.

Sound causes small pressure fluctuations in the air, superimposed on the normal atmospheric pressure, that are sensed by the human ear. The sensitivity of the ear depends on the frequency of the sound, but is not a simple function of either the pressure changes or the frequency. Therefore frequency-weighted quantities are used in acoustics to approximate the way in which sound is perceived. Such frequency-weighted quantities are employed, for example, in work to protect against hearing damage. The effects of ultrasonic acoustic waves pose similar concerns in medical diagnosis and therapy.

Ionizing radiation deposits energy in irradiated matter. The ratio of deposited energy to mass is termed absorbed dose. High doses of ionizing radiation kill cells, and this is used in radiation therapy. Appropriate biological weighting functions are used to compare therapeutic effects of different radiation treatments. Low sub-lethal doses can cause damage to living organisms, for instance by inducing cancer. Appropriate risk-weighted functions are used at low doses as the basis of radiation protection regulations.

There is a class of units for quantifying the biological activity of certain substances used in medical diagnosis and therapy that cannot yet be defined in terms of the units of the SI. This is because the mechanism of the specific biological effect that gives these substances their medical use is not yet sufficiently well understood for it to be quantifiable in terms of physico-chemical parameters. In view of their importance for human health and safety, the World Health Organization (WHO) has taken responsibility for defining WHO International Units (IU) for the biological activity of such substances.

Related articles

Appendix 3: Units for photochemical and photobiological quantities
World Health Organization (WHO)

Note: For the official text, please refer to the PDF files available at:
  • (in English) and
  • (in French).