It is unlikely that the corporate version of H.P. Lovecraft’s mythical Cthulhu will be going away anytime soon, but if activist billionaire investor Nelson Peltz has anything to say about it, there will be major changes at DuPont – including a breakup of the $64 billion conglomerate.

DuPont Chemical was founded in 1801 by a minor French aristocrat who had fled his homeland during the Revolution one step ahead of the guillotine. Starting out as a manufacturer of gunpowder, the company grew over the decades of the 19th Century like a tumor.

It’s an apt metaphor given DuPont’s environmental record, the company’s products have allegedly caused cancer in hundreds of thousands of people throughout the world. And that’s not the worst of DuPont’s crimes over the decades. BusinessWeek gave the corporate juggernaut kudos for “best practices” in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in 2005, and DuPont so generously spent $2 million on a “Nature Center” on the Delaware Bay – but (obvious “greenwashing” aside) these do not make up for decades of environmental abuse and destroyed lives.

DuPont’s record of profiting from warfare is well known; in addition to gunpowder, Dupont also brought us Agent Orange, a defoliant used in Vietnam (the effects of which veterans still suffer a half century later) and provided chemical weapons for the Defense Department. Beyond this however, the list of Dupont’s misdeeds is a lengthy one:

  • In the early 20th Century, Dupont chemist Thomas Midgley brought us the ozone-depleting CFCs used in aerosol sprays and refrigeration units;
  • Dupont has its hands in GMOs, conspiring with Monsanto to control global food production;
  • In 2001, Greenpeace identified Dupont as a “Worldwide leader in biopiracy,” patenting genes and literally stealing genetic resources from developing countries;
  • In 2011, a science panel reported that a chemical used in the manufacture of teflon at a West Virginia plant was linked to cancer, thyroid disease and other illnesses.

This is only a sample of Dupont’s activities – that, were it not a “corporate person,” would be considered capital crimes.

A corporation cannot be put to death – but if Peltz is successful in breaking up this bloated conglomerate (even if his main concern is the shareholders), it may reduce some of DuPont’s tyrannical powers.

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues.