A three year project to investigate whether older people are at greater risk of exposure to carbon monoxide (CO) has revealed some concerning findings, according to the lead researcher.

Beth Cheshire, who led the investigation as part of her PhD at Lancaster University confirmed that prolonged low-level CO exposure has a negative impact on cognition, an effect that is worse the older you are. In other words, the negative effect of advancing age on cognition was worsened by greater overall CO exposure.

Beth Cheshire said. “To our knowledge, this research is the first of its kind in the CO literature and the results provide preliminary evidence of the neuropsychological effects of chronic low-level CO exposure in older adults.”

The impact of high level, short term CO poisoning is well documented and is estimated to cause around 4,000 A&E visits every year. However, research on the effects associated with longer term low-level CO exposure is limited and the effects on the brain are currently unknown.

We know that older adults are more vulnerable to CO exposure due to increased susceptibility from reduced physiological reserve and potentially from pre-existing disease. They are also likely to spend more time at home, further increasing the risk of home exposure.

The results of the project are particularly alarming as a number of studies have reported raised CO levels within UK homes, at levels above those recommended to be safe by the WHO. High CO levels within the home are frequently caused by problems with gas appliances, such as gas fires, cookers and boilers, which are used more as the weather turns colder. [1]The UK has the oldest housing stock in Europe and therefore has a greater proportion of older gas appliances.

Working with West Midlands Fire Service, the study collected CO levels over one month in 106 older adult homes in Coventry (all below levels that would trigger a CO detector: 50 parts per million for between 60 to 90 minutes). Follow-up CO monitoring and assessments were carried out at 7 months in order to examine any longer-term impacts of exposure.

Of the total 106 older adult homes in Coventry, 70 (66%) had some CO present over the initial 1-month monitoring period. Of these, 78 participants completed the follow-up at 7 months of which 47 (60%) had some CO present.

These results indicate a high prevalence of low-level CO within older adult homes in Coventry. However, the CO levels did not exceed those currently recommended to be safe by the WHO in any home.

Adrian McConnell, Head of Charitable Operations at the CO Research Trust said. “Determining the levels at which low-level chronic exposures become harmful would be invaluable in informing policy, guidelines and safety technology in order to keep those most vulnerable safe. There is a significant knowledge gap in this area, which is why we were keen to fund this project. However, it is clear that there is more work to be done.”

Identifying specific cognitive areas that are affected by chronic low-level CO exposure would also provide information on possible patterns of impairment that would be invaluable in clinical settings to aid in the diagnosis of low-level CO exposure.

Beth presented the findings of her project at a CO Research Trust lecture on 21st Oct. To watch the full presentation again, please click here.

She has also written a blog which provides more detail on her project, which can be found here.

- Ends -

About the CO Research Trust
The CO Research Trust (formerly the Gas Safety Trust) is a registered charity which was established in 2005. The vision of the charity is a world where people are not exposed to carbon monoxide (CO).

For more information please contact.

Natalie Fleck

CO Research Trust


Follow us: @COResearchTrust

[1] According to the Centre for Ageing Better 21% of homes in the UK were built before 1919, 38% before 1946, and only 7% after 2000, making the British housing stock older than any European Union countries.

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