The Fate of Kratom, Hidden Oil Spills, and Celebrities of Science

7:17 minutes

Kratom is a euphoria-inducing drug that some heroin addicts are using to treat the symptoms of withdrawal. The bitter tree leaf is being touted as an alternative to the prescription synthetic suboxone, which many recovering addicts can still abuse. Wired science reporter Nick Stockton talks about the Drug Enforcement Agency’s plans to regulate kratom, and what further research might illuminate.

Plus, a tally of the thousands of “hidden” oil spills across the United States each year, and more short subjects in science.

Correction: A story about Feynman’s calculations of the age of the Earth’s core and crust was misreported. According to Feynman and more recent calculations, the core of the Earth is younger than the crust. You can find the relevant research paper here.

Segment Guests

Nick Stockton

Nick Stockton is a science reporter at Wired, based in San Francisco, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. If you’re battling addiction to heroin or other opioids, one option you might turn to is kratom. It’s an opiate like herb that helps with withdrawal symptoms, but without becoming addictive itself. There are people who swear it saved them from even alcoholism. But it’s not well-studied and narrowly escaped a temporary ban from the DEA this fall.

What’s next? Well here with the scoop on that and other short subjects in science is Nick Stockton, science reporter over at WIRED. He joins us from San Francisco. Welcome.

NICK STOCKTON: Good morning, Ira. How are you?

IRA FLATOW: Nice. So what is next for– it’s pronounced a couple of different ways, isn’t it? Katom or kratton or kraton or whatever.

NICK STOCKTON: I think most of the people I spoke to who use it called kratom. And yes, so the public comment period– the extended public comment period just ended on December 1st. And so now, the DEA has over 10,000 comments to sift through before they make their next decision about whether to put it as an emergency schedule one or to schedule it at all.

IRA FLATOW: And so who’s speaking in favor of it?

NICK STOCKTON: Many, many, many people. A lot of them– these are people in their mid to late ’30s and older. People who get hooked on opioids. It’s not like the party drug demographic, really. These are a lot of people who are saying it helps them, as you mentioned, with their opiate addiction or heroin addiction or managing pain, things like that.

But they also, I spoke to quite a few of them and all of them say they want it studied. They want to know– they’re former addicts and they don’t want to become addicted to something else or become dependent on it. They want to know that it’s not addictive. And they want to know that it is actually doing the things that they think it’s doing.

IRA FLATOW: Do we know how safe it is?

NICK STOCKTON: Also hasn’t been research on that. But there’s only been 15 cases of people getting taken in with kratom overdoses. But in 14 of those cases, people had other stuff in their system because, again, people are using kratom to treat coming down from other opioids. So those overdoses could have been likely caused by those other things, as well.

IRA FLATOW: Is it possible it’s being released too soon before we know what these side effects might be?

NICK STOCKTON: You mean the scheduling?


NICK STOCKTON: It is possible. The DEA kind of has a history of being very precautionary about which drugs it schedules. And trying to stay ahead. It is doing diligence, things like synthetic marijuana which are very dangerous. And it’s adding those to schedule very rapidly. And so this seems to be another instance of the DEA, kind of, just trying to be very precautionary.

But the fact that they stepped back and put a pause on the emergency scheduling that they’d announced earlier in the summer, kind of shows a little progression in the DEA policies.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to another story I saw, very interesting. There’s more crude oil leaking into the ocean than we were aware of.

NICK STOCKTON: Yeah, so this is a story that my colleague, Emma Grey Ellis, found earlier this summer. And she’s been working on it for quite a while. She was just looking at this, somewhat small leak. It only leaks about 84 to 1,000– or 1,500 gallons a day, which is relatively small. But it’s going to keep leaking for another 100 years.

And because it goes under this threshold of 100,000 gallons, it doesn’t meet this requirement for extra cleanup and extra money and extra penalties for the oil company that dropped it or that caused the spill. And there’s over 30,000 of these year that happen.

And so cumulatively, the accounting isn’t super clear but cumulatively, they may possibly add up to as much of an Exxon Valdez size of oil leaking into US waters each year.

IRA FLATOW: I saw the article in WIRED. It’s just amazing how much oil is still just seeping out of different spots.

NICK STOCKTON: It’s baffling.

IRA FLATOW: You attended the latest round of the Breakthrough Prize. It’s kind of a celebrity studded event. See a lot of celebs there?

NICK STOCKTON: Yes, it was very fun. The Breakthrough’s were– they’re about five years old. And there’s this prize founded by several Silicon Valley billionaires, people like Mark Zuckerberg and Anne Wojcicki, and they award achievements in life science, fundamental physics, mathematics. And if that sounds like the Nobel’s, then you’re right. They have a lot of Nobel overlap.

The things that make them different are, they have a ton of celebrities there. People like Alex Rodriguez Vin Diesel, Jeremy Irons, Will.I.Am, Alicia Keys. And then plus, tech people like Zuckerberg and Wijcicki, who are pretty big celebs in their own right, at least here in the San Francisco area.

And the other cool thing that happens at the Breakthrough’s, which is what really got me interested, is that they don’t have these really strict limits that the Nobel’s have. And so one of the awards was given for the LIGO experiment. And they actually dispersed the money– 2/3 of the money, which was $3 million given to the LIGO team, to the over 1,000 people who worked on it, rather than just the top three principal investigators on this.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. So it’s big money. It’s not just like the Ig Nobels. They’re trying to be serious with big money.

NICK STOCKTON: Yeah, they’re definitely trying to push forward research. And they’re very interested in philanthropic giving towards science, especially with some of the threats towards science funding that have been happening for years now. And are maybe a little more real in years to come.

IRA FLATOW: You bet you. Lastly, someone proved Richard Feynman wrong about something?

NICK STOCKTON: I know. It’s crazy. Yeah, so several decades ago, Richard Feynman through out in one of his talks that the Earth’s core is several hours to days older than the crust. And this is, of course, due to the things we know about how gravity warps time thanks to Albert Einstein’s work on relativity. And so things with high gravity move faster, relative places with low gravity.

And so these scientists– Richard Feynman said this several decades ago in a talk and then there was a paper that came out of it and they put it out a couple of days, but nobody really checked the math. And until these two Danish researchers went ahead and started jotting it down and looking at the equations and they put it at actually, it’s 2 and 1/2 years since the Earth’s formation. That’s how much older the core is to the crust.

IRA FLATOW: Two and a half years? And Feynman just off the top of his head, said a couple of days. And then when you really look at it, it’s 2 and 1/2 years. Because gravity is stronger at the core so time slows down?

NICK STOCKTON: Time speeds up.

IRA FLATOW: Speeds up. Speed up.

NICK STOCKTON: Yes. And so this just kind of shows the value. Like the point of science is to find a truth. You got to check your heroes even.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. So you know what that means, that someone is going to take it on a third time. See if they can disprove the second person.

NICK STOCKTON: Exactly. These authors, they tell physics students, check them out. Do these calculations in class.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. I’m going to do that myself when I get off the air. Love Richard Feynman’s stuff. It’s great. Thank you, Nick. Nick Stockton.

NICK STOCKTON: You’re welcome.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Nick Stockton is a science reporter over at WIRED and he was joining us from San Francisco.

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About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor was a producer for Science Friday. Her days involved diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.