BACKGROUND: Carbon monoxide (CO) is normally present in the human body due to endogenous production of CO. CO can also be inhaled by exposure to external sources such as cigarette smoke, car exhaust, and fire. The purpose of this study was to investigate CO concentrations in blood from 410 blood donors at the blood center in Umeå, Sweden. To further evaluate the effects of cigarette smoking on CO concentrations, the elimination time for CO was examined in six volunteer smokers after a smoked cigarette. STUDY DESIGN AND METHODS: Blood samples from whole blood donors were obtained during the blood center's routine operation. In connection with blood donations, demographic and behavioral data were collected from the donors. The CO concentration was determined using gas chromatography. RESULTS: The majority of blood donors had approximately the same CO concentration (mean, 84.5 micromol/L). In 6 percent of the samples, the concentrations were higher than 130 micromol per L. The highest CO concentration was 561 micromol per L. The main source for these high CO concentrations appeared to be cigarette smoking. In the volunteer smokers, the elimination time after a smoked cigarette varied significantly, with elimination half-lives from 4.7 to 8.4 hours. CONCLUSION: These results show that blood bank red blood cell bags may have CO concentrations above the physiologic level. The time interval between cigarette smoking and blood donation seems to be a particularly important factor for elevated CO concentrations.