Do you need to be exposed to pollutants over many years to be affected by them?
No, not necessarily.
Some pollutants, in high quantities, can have an acute negative impact on someone's health. Sometimes these high concentrations of pollutants just make people ill, other times however they can be fatal.
Some pollutants are also more harmful to human health than others, so the amount or concentration of the pollutant and the characteristics of the pollutant itself both determine how quickly a person will experience negative effects.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), are carbon based compounds that evaporate at room temperature. People can be exposed to them not only from inhalation but they can also be absorbed through the skin or ingested.
These chemicals are used in many household products such as paint strippers, furniture polishes, and glue. Some of these compounds include: formaldehyde, isopentane, limonene, toluene, and vinyl chloride. When someone is exposed to a high concentration of VOCs in a short amount of time the person can experience headaches, eye, nose, or throat irritation, and dizziness.
Smoke and carbon monoxide are also forms of pollutants (from fires usually). Smoke inhalation can result in eye, nose and throat irritation, shortness of breath, and lung irritation (if you've ever been to a party with a bonfire you probably know what I mean). Carbon monoxide inhalation, or poisoning can lead to dull headaches, weakness, dizziness, lethargy, shortness of breath, blurred vision, nausea, vomiting, and loss of consciousness.
Smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning are a common occupational hazard associated with first responders (firefighters, EMTs, and police officers).