The purpose of this study was to determine whether low doses of carbon monoxide (CO) exacerbate myocardial ischemia during a progressive exercise test. The effect of CO exposure was evaluated using the objective measure of time to development of electrocardiographic changes indicative of ischemia and the subjective measure of time to onset of angina. Sixty-three male subjects (41-75 years) with well-documented coronary artery disease, who had exertional angina pectoris and ischemic ST-segment changes in their electrocardiograms, were studied. Results from three randomized, double-blind test visits (room air, low and high CO) were compared. The effect of CO exposure was determined from the percent difference in the end points obtained on exercise tests performed before and after a 1-hr exposure to room air or CO. The exposures resulted in postexercise carboxyhemoglobin (COHb) levels of 0.6% +/- 0.3%, 2.0% +/- 0.1%, and 3.9% +/- 0.1%. The results obtained on the 2%-COHb day and 3.9%-COHb day were compared to those on the room air day. There were 5.1% (p = 0.01) and 12.1% (p less than or equal to 0.0001) decreases in the time to development of ischemic ST-segment changes after exposures producing 2.0 and 3.9% COHb, respectively, compared to the control day. In addition, there were 4.2% (p = 0.027) and 7.1% (p = 0.002) decreases in time to the onset of angina after exposures producing 2.0 and 3.9% COHb, respectively, compared to the control day. A significant dose-response relationship was found for the individual differences in the time to ST end point and angina for the pre- versus postexposure exercise tests at the three carboxyhemoglobin levels. These findings demonstrate that low doses of CO produce significant effects on cardiac function during exercise in subjects with coronary artery disease.