Health Protection Research Unit for Chemical & Radiation Threats & Hazards


Finding something when it isn’t there – identifying exposure to carbon monoxide

Perhaps as many as 4,000 people a year end up in hospital following exposure to carbon monoxide, a colourless, odourless gas which is often released from faulty heating systems. Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are however very non-specific and often overlooked. One problem with finding out if someone has been exposed to carbon monoxide is that by the time poisoning is suspected, the carbon monoxide has been expelled from the body and can no longer be detected. This means that we have no real way of finding out how many people are actually affected by carbon monoxide poisoning and if there are long-term health effects. What is needed is a specific test that can tell us if someone has been affected by high levels of carbon monoxide, even if the carbon monoxide has long gone – in effect a carbon monoxide fingerprint.

To try to identify a carbon monoxide fingerprint (in scientific terms a “biomarker”), we have been funded by the charity the Gas Safety Trust  to run a series of experiments. We will first take blood samples from healthy volunteers and then expose the blood cells in the lab to carbon monoxide. Any changes in the blood cells will then be determined using sophisticated laboratory methods. We will then be able to see how long these changes last in the cells after the carbon monoxide has disappeared. If some of these changes last for several hours, then we might be able to use them to detect carbon monoxide in blood samples from people who have been exposed. Having this test would mean that we can find out how many people are affected by carbon monoxide exposure each year, and if there are long-term effects in those people.