For decades in this era, the one we used to call the American Century, the blazon of our worth used to be the phrase that always came to mind when we surveyed the corruptions of Europe, the despairs of Asia, the benightedness of the whole rest of the world: You can't drink the water.

Oh small, smug smiles of self-satisfaction when we checked into faraway hotel rooms and saw bottles of water on the bureaus; when we asked for water in restaurants and the waiter brought a bottle rather than a pitcher.

The purity of water -- the subject of much discussion at this week's convention of the International Bottled Water Association -- became somehow linked to the purity of our national soul, as in the campaigns against fluoridation of our water, fluoridation being seen as a communist plot back in the heyday of right-wing paranoia.

This was a mind-set that came to be symbolized by Gen. Jack D. Ripper in "Dr. Strangelove." Ripper drank only bottled water, and claimed that as a result, women sensed the purity of his "essence."

The battle against fluoridation is still being fought by fringe personalities, but now they're environmentalists. Chlorination is under attack as well for that swimming pool tang, and the bad image it gets every time a railroad tank car full of it overturns and a whole town has to be evacuated. Purists urge the use of tasteless ozone as a disinfectant instead, but what does this do to the ozone layer?

Meanwhile, we see television footage of our troops in Saudi Arabia drinking bottled water. Somewhere, Gen. Ripper is laughing or scowling, it's hard to tell which.

You wouldn't think that water could get so complicated, but there's even a Bottled Water Hall of Fame now. Four people were inducted into it yesterday. There were statuettes, in the manner of Oscars, but in keeping with the fierce purity of bottled water, the applause had a modesty that verged on the theocratic.

The convention had an odd tone to it.

Uniformed guards checked credentials. Why?

"It's not a public show," said spokesman Geary Campbell. "A lot of people could come in and think 'I can drink as much water as I want.' "

Once, of course, the same attitude might have been inspired by the thought of unlimited bourbon or beer. But as America strives to purify itself, and as trust in municipal tap-water declines, bottled water consumption goes up. It has increased nearly 400 percent since 1979, from 487.7 million gallons to 1,816.2 million gallons last year. There are people out there who might crash this convention to filch a taste of Poland Spring, Great Bear, Music Mountain, Neenah Springs, Arrowhead, Sparkletts, Ozarka, Alhambra, Deer Park, Triton, Diamond, Running Spring, Pure Flo, Sahara, Hinckley & Schmitt, Ambrosia, Clare or Georgia Mountain bottled waters.

Americans spent $1.34 billion on bottled water last year, according to the IBWA, and that doesn't count soda water or seltzers that are classified as "soft drinks" and regulated differently from bottled water. This is a sore point with some of these people, including Ronald Davis, head of Perrier Group USA, and the man who had to order the recall of 70 million bottles of Perrier in February when it was found to be contaminated -- not with fluorine or chlorine but tiny amounts of benzene in the gas that Perrier gets out of the ground along with the water.

The issue wasn't health. No one said that even the heaviest Perrier drinker had significantly increased the chance of cancer. The issue, at least in America, was purity.

The scandal hit France, too, along with a recall, but the French shrugged it off. Yesterday, Davis showed a video clip of a Frenchwoman in a cafe telling an interviewer: "American people are more careful about what they eat and drink than French people."

Davis added: "Here there is a cancer phobia along with an obsession about purity." His company not only dumped all the water, it recycled all the bottles. Davis pointed out that "in Europe, people drink bottled water for what it has in it. In America, people drink bottled water for what it doesn't have in it."


"It's the Puritan ethic," said Russell Holt, a West Virginia water wholesaler.


Maybe it was the fact that the ballroom heat wasn't on, or maybe it was the gray suits and black shoes that all the panelists were wearing, or the fact that they'd gone a little thin-lipped in the chill, but it was hard to listen to all this talk about "purity," "sanctity," "integrity" and "hard work" without thinking about a gathering of elders in Massachusetts, circa 1640.

Here, at this convention, were the very springs (bottled) at which the soul of America once drank, and could again.

On the other hand, here was the very bottled water that once symbolized backwardness and decadence in the rest of the world. Now, it has snob appeal, it's Euro-chic, it's environmentally aware.

Sometimes, though, a good glass of water is just a good glass of water.

Somebody asked Susan Gibson, of Odessa, Tex., if people drink a lot of bottled water where she comes from.

"You bet," she said.


"You can't see through the water in Odessa, you have to wait for stuff to settle to the bottom, all that lime," she said.

You can't drink the water?

"That water will drink you," she said.