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America's 551 million-gallon thirst for a simple drink--bottled water

It comes as exotic imported water or down-home country spring water, distilled or filtered, bubbling with carbonation or just plain, in fancy glass bottles or reusable plastic gallon jugs.

Drinking water, once considered as near as the kitchen faucet, is a big business today. Sales of domestic drinking water hit $666 million in 1981, says William Deal, executive vice-president of the International Bottled Water Association. Americans gulped down some 551 million gallons last year. Of that total, 27 million came from overseas, led by French-produced Perrier.

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Sales have bubbled up 93 percent during the last five years, says Deal, making bottled water the fastest-growing beverage on the market. One of three families in trend-setting California drinks bottled water, he says, and one of 18 nationwide.

Deal says bottlers have seen no need to emphasize the ''obvious'' lack of caffeine in their product. But other health issues are a major selling point, he says. These include concern with pollution or use of chlorination in local public water supplies.

New products, such as purified local water from vending machines at supermarkets, continue to widen the bottled water market. Deal expects a 10 to 15 percent sales increase in 1982, despite fizzling sales among the imported waters. ''Some of that may be a fad that is subsiding,'' he concedes.

Makers of herbal teas, another no-caffeine alternative, are brewing up big profits too. Industry leader Celestial Seasonings of Boulder, Colo., markets 21 blends and last year hit $22 million in sales. Recipes on the boxes suggest how they can be served as iced teas, making them a cold drink option as well.

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