updated 6/9/2009 4:31:43 PM ET 2009-06-09T20:31:43

After an outbreak of the bird flu, most carcasses end up in landfills. There, according to a new study, the virus can survive for up to two years.

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Landfills are designed to contain waste for far longer than that, so the practice is probably safe. Still, the new study suggests that waste managers might want to be particularly careful with how they dispose of infected birds.

"There are a lot of birds at landfills," said Shannon Bartelt-Hunt, an environmental engineer at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "If you think of landfills as reservoirs, you could have birds as vectors. Other animals could be vectors. Landfill personnel could be potentially exposed."

Bird flu, also known as avian influenza, mainly infects birds, including chicken, ducks and turkeys. But human cases are becoming more common, and there are fears that future mutations could help the virus more readily spread from person to person, possibly leading to pandemics.

When birds on a farm come down with the disease, farmers usually kill the entire flock because that's the only known way to subdue an outbreak. So far, hundreds of millions of birds have been killed by the flu or by efforts to control it. During one outbreak on a Virginia farm in 2002, four million birds were tossed out.

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