"We're really at the frontiers of this, and we can make a speedy example for all the other states," Avila told the commission.
Collecting information on drilling-related health complaints, investigating them, centralizing the information in one database, and then comparing illnesses in drilling communities with non-drilling communities could help refute or verify claims that drilling for the natural gas has an effect on public health, he said.
The aggregation of data also would allow the state to make its findings public; investigations into individual health complaints must be kept private.
The Marcellus Shale formation, considered the nation's largest-known natural gas reservoir, lies primarily beneath Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, and Ohio. Pennsylvania is the center of activity, with more than 3,000 wells drilled in the last three years and thousands more planned in the coming years as thick shale emerges as an affordable, plentiful, and profitable source of natural gas.
The rapid growth of deep shale drilling and its use of chemicals and high-volume hydraulic fracturing, along with the production of often-toxic wastewater, are spurring concerns in Pennsylvania about poisoned air and water. The hydraulic fracturing process involves fracturing rock to allow the natural gas it contains to a production well.
In the past year or so, the Department of Health has received several dozen or so health complaints, he said.
One woman, Crystal Stroud of Granville Summit in northern Pennsylvania, told an anti-drilling rally in the Capitol this month that she is hearing from others in Bradford County about bizarre and sudden health problems that they blame on contaminated water from the area's heavy drilling.
A spokesman for Corbett has said that both the departments of Health and Environmental Protection have active investigations into Stroud's claims, and that the company that drilled the well, Chief Oil & Gas L.L.C., of Dallas, has denied responsibility for Stroud's health problems.
On Friday, Avila said his agency has found no links between drilling and the illnesses and diseases presented to it so far, but he added that a wider study is necessary to determine whether there are any associations, and a health registry could accomplish that.