The D.C. government filed a $400 million lawsuit yesterday against manufacturers and distributors of asbestos to recoup the expected multimillion dollar cost of removing the cancer-causing material from the city's public schools and facilities.

In filing the suit, the District joins Maryland, Pennsylvania and several cities, including Baltimore, in seeking damages against the asbestos industry in what authorities believe is the beginning of a tide of similar lawsuits nationwide.

Officials here and elsewhere contend that asbestos makers for years distributed the material knowing its potential hazards, and that local governments must now foot the bill for removing it to meet federal health standards.

City Administrator Thomas Downs said the city expects to spend "in the neighborhood of $20 million . . . containing asbestos. We're saying that the manufacturers have a responsibility for the complete, safe removal of asbestos from public buildings."

The D.C. school system has found crumbling asbestos in 162 of its 189 school and administrative buildings, although none of the facilities has been closed down because of contamination. Parts of some buildings have been cordoned off in an effort to protect school children and staff workers.

School officials have asked the City Council for $5.8 million to finance the asbestos cleanup.

Downs said at least 100 buildings at the Lorton Reformatory in Fairfax County contain asbestos and the city has taken steps to alleviate the hazard.

Industry officials could not be reached for comment yesterday about the District's suit. In the past, some industry officials have argued that the presence of asbestos does not constitute a problem that requires removal.

The cleanup here and elsewhere comes at a time when the federal government is scaling back funding to remove asbestos from the nation's schools while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is cracking down on local school boards where asbestos has been found.

Asbestos also has been found in suburban schools here. The EPA in September proposed fining the Arlington County school system $14,600 for failing to post warning notices of asbestos presence in two schools.

In September, Maryland filed suit against 47 asbestos firms over material installed in public buildings, while authorities in Virginia say they are planning to file a similar court complaint.

In their suit, filed in D.C. Superior Court, city attorneys claim that the manufacturers are "responsible either through negligence or in some other actionable manner" for the hazards now caused by asbestos in public facilities.

The suit contends that industry officials for years "suppressed, discouraged, and/or retarded research and publication" of information concerning the link between asbestos and various diseases and "actively concealed and misrepresented such relationship."

According to the suit, the companies involved "adhered to an industry-wide practice of refusing to provide necessary warning as to the hazards presented by exposure to asbestos."

"The facts that are becoming known are that the manufacturers had substantial knowledge about the dangers," Downs said. "If they knew that, they had a responsibility toward public facilities."

Downs stressed that the ultimate cost of dealing with asbestos may not be known for many years because the city now is containing the material in most buildings, rather than removing it completely. Future generations will be forced to continue with the containment efforts, unless it is totally removed.

Local governments are under some pressure to file their suits now because of the ruling of a federal judge in New York involving the bankruptcy filing of Manville Corp., the largest manufacturer of asbestos in the western hemisphere. The judge has ordered that claims for property damage against the company be filed by next month.

Downs said the city has already filed a claim in that case.

A national coalition of attorneys is forming to represent any of the nation's 4,400 school boards which decide to sue the industry.

"The problem is obviously one of nationwide scope," said Neil Peterson of Philadelphia, one of the attorneys involved. "The only question is how many individual school boards will respond and how many need to."

The D.C. government sued the following companies:

Owens-Corning Fiberglass Corp., Washington; GAF Corp., Wayne, N.J.; The Celotex Corp., Washington; Eagle Pitcher Industries, Washington; Armstrong World Industries, Washington; Keene Corp., Washington; Fibreboard Corp., Portland, Ore.; Southern Textile Corp., Charlotte, N.C.; Owens-Illinois Inc., Washington; Certainteed Corp., Valley Forge, Pa.; U.S. Gypsum Co., Washington; W.R. Grace & Co., Washington; Combustion Engineering, Inc., Washington.

Also, National Gypsum Co., Washington; U.S. Mineral Products Co., Stanhope, N.J.; Standard Insulations Inc., Kansas City, Mo.; The Charles Pfizer & Co. Inc., New York; Georgia-Pacific Corp., Atlanta; Proko Industries Inc., Mesquite, Texas; C. Tennant & Sons, New York; H.K. Porter Co., Pittsburgh; Nicolet Industries Inc., Ambler, Pa.; Aaer Sprayed Insulations Inc., Wheeling, Ill.; Air-o-Therm Application Co., Chicago; Wilkin Insulation Co., Mt. Prospect, Ill.; Forty-Eight Insulations, Inc., Wilton, Conn.; Rapid-American Corp., New York; The Flintkote Co., Stamford, Conn.; Raymark Industries, Inc., Trumbull, Conn.; Pittsburgh Corning Corp., Pittsburgh; Lake Asbestos of Quebec Ltd., Wilmington; Turner & Newall Ltd., Manchester, England.

Also, J.W. Roberts Ltd., Manchester, England; Cape Asbestos, Johannesberg; Bell Asbestos Mines Ltd., Quebec; Asbestos Corp., Montreal; Lac D'Amiante du Quebec, Wilmington; Carey-Canada Inc., Quebec; Brinco Mining Ltd., Vancouver; and Turner Asbestos Fibres Ltd., Manchester, England.