WASHINGTON (AP) _ Three state governments, two school organizations, a railroad and several other defendants in 10 cities were charged by the Justice Department on Thursday with mishandling asbestos, a cancer-causing material, in the renovation or demolition of buildings.

Asbestos fibers, when breathed, can cause lung cancer and other potentially fatal diseases, some of which don't show up for 20 to 40 years after exposure, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The defendants include the states of Florida, Washington and Idaho, school organizations in New Jersey and Iowa, the Consolidated Rail Corp., other building owners and contractors who tore down or restored buildings containing asbestos.

Attorney General Edwin Meese III said the 11 cases were developed jointly by the Justice Department and the EPA as part of an initiative to reduce asbestos pollution nationally.

The Justice Department said it expects to file more cases on the issue in the months ahead.

Courtney M. Price, assistant EPA administrator for enforcement, said she hopes the action will deter others from ignoring asbestos standards. ''We have strong indications that many small business owners, and some individuals who may not think of themselves as business people, don't know or don't want to know that they're covered by the rules protecting people from asbestos exposure,'' she said.

The complaints asked the court to enjoin the defendants from further violations, and assess civil penalities of up to $25,000 per day of violations.

''The emission of asbestos from renovation and demolition activity is a national envirnomental problem,'' said Assistant Attorney General F. Henry Habicht II. ''We hope this initiative will ... prompt greater voluntary compliance with the Clean Air Act.'' Federal standards require that asbestos must be removed before other demolition work is done in buildings. The rules further require that it be kept wet and deposited at an approved disposal site.

The EPA estimates that between 1900 and 1980, about 30 million tons of asbestos were used in buildings for fireproofing, insulating or decorative purposes. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has banned it from clothing, dry-wall patching compounds and ceramic logs.

Since 1982, the EPA has required all schools to inspect for ''friable'' asbestos in their buildings. Friable means it can be crumbled with hand pressure, and therefore, is likely to emit fibers into the air when disturbed. Last year, Congress appropriated $50 million in loan and grant money to help schools with the most serious problems.

Briefly, these were the cases filed by Justice:

-The state of Florida and its Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services were charged, in a suit brought in Tallahassee, with mishandling asbestos at the Sunland Center in Tallahassee.

Florida Gov. Bob Graham said he would ask for a report from the department involved ''and then we can make a determination based on that.''

-The state of Washington was charged, in Seattle, in connection with the renovation of the Coleman Ferry Terminal.

Duane Berentson, Washington state's transportation secretary, accused the EPA of being more concerned with publicity than with solving the asbestos problem.

''I am dismayed that the EPA has taken this precipitous action, and frankly distressed by their attitude of headline-seeking rather than trying to solve a problem,'' he said. ''They notified us of their action less than 24 hours before they issued their news release.''

-The state of Idaho and Boise State University were charged, in Boise, regarding renovation of a boiler plant at a student housing facility.

-The Franklin Borough Board of Education, in Franklin, N.J., and others were named as defendants in a case involving renovation of the Franklin Elementary school. The suit was filed in Newark.

-The Iowa Asbestos Co. and the Ankeny Community School District were charged, in Des Moines, Iowa, over the removal of asbestos at the Parkview and Nevelin schools.

-Conrail, Robert Hawthorne, Inc., Mid-Atlantic Property Holders, Inc., and the East Thompson Corp. were charged in connection with demolition activities at the Old Musician's Hall, the Conrail Boilerhouse, and an unnamed building, also in Philadelphia.

-Several defendants, including the Veteran's Cooperative Housing Association and the Hess Mechanical Corp., were charged in Washington, D.C., in two separate suits regarding work at Naylor Garden Apartments and renovation of an unidentified downtown building.

-Four firms were charged in Denver regarding demolition activities at a shopping center in Lakewood, Colo. They are Moore Development Co., Murphy Construction Co., Wayne Gomez Demolition andExcavation, and Asbesco, Inc.

-The Witco Corp., was charged in Sacramento, Calif., regarding the renovation of a building in Oildale, Calif.

-Northampton Developers, Inc., was charged in Springfield, Mass., in connection with the renovation of a Clark School for the Deaf dormitory in Northhampton, Mass.